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Winter storms sweep across Syria and neighbouring countries

Briefing notes

Winter storms sweep across Syria and neighbouring countries

9 January 2015

UNHCR staff have been working around the clock this week to help millions of refugees and internally displaced people endure a severe winter storm that has been sweeping across much of the Middle East. Forecasts say cold weather is set to continue over the next few days, with heavy snowfall at higher elevations and gale force winds.

Despite the severity of the storm, our offices around the region have so far reported relatively little damage in most refugee communities. Nonetheless, storms are continuing to blow through. The longer the cold temperatures continue, the more difficult this becomes for refugees. Flooding is already a problem in some lower-lying areas, and will become more serious once the snow begins melting at higher elevations. Our teams and partners have worked as fast as possible over the past few days to replace damaged tents, provide repair kits, deliver emergency supplies and offer alternative temporary shelter for those forced to abandon their homes.

UNHCR offices have run winter operations in the region for the past four years. Planning and implementation begins well before the winter and includes cash vouchers to help the most vulnerable refugees purchase needed items, as well as provision of fuel, stoves, blankets and weatherproofing kits. Despite the best efforts of governments, local authorities, UNHCR and our many partners, the situation across the region remains precarious for most refugees, particularly given the extremely poor conditions in which they already live and the often scattered nature of the population.

We are particularly concerned about the situation in Lebanon where many refugees spread out over 1,700 settlements live in precarious situations. There have been reports of more than 100 shelters and tents damaged across the country. Flooding and standing water is a problem in many places hit by heavy rain and high winds. In coastal areas of the south, for example, high waves have flooded some settlements. Additional weather proofing kits to reinforce damaged shelters are being distributed and we're replacing blankets, mattresses and other items that have been ruined. In the Bekaa, we are concerned about flooding in the aftermath of the storm, and especially once snow starts to melt. As most informal tented sites are built on private property, efforts to provide proper drainage require approval from landlords or municipalities not always forthcoming.

The following is additional detail on the situation around the region:


With more than 1.1 million refugees spread across 1,700 locations, reaching all those in need and making sure they have resources to withstand severe storms is a huge human and logistical undertaking. Our first priority has been refugees living at high altitudes in insecure shelters such as tents and other makeshift structures. UNHCR estimates that about 55 percent of refugees in Lebanon live in sub-standard shelters, including in hundreds of informal tented sites - 852 of them in Bekaa Valley alone. There are even people living in abandoned buildings, sheds and garages. With no government approval for refugee shelter construction or significant renovations to existing structures, we supply refugees with materials to reinforce their shelters as best as possible.

Initial reports are that more than 100 refugee shelters and tents have been damaged across the country. Flooding and standing water is a big problem in places that have been hit by heavy rain and high winds. In coastal areas of the south, for example, high waves flooded some settlements. Additional weather-proofing kits are being distributed and we're replacing blankets, mattresses and other items that have been ruined. In addition to the ongoing winter operation, our five offices across Lebanon had already pre-positioned emergency stocks of blankets, tarpaulins, hygiene and baby kits, latrines, food parcels and fuel in various municipalities for rapid distribution.

The more than 144,000 refugees living in so-called informal settlements in the Bekaa Valley are among the hardest-hit. Heavy snow has blanketed the area and other parts of Lebanon since Wednesday morning, cutting off roads and isolating thousands of people. In informal settlements, refugees have to constantly brush the snow off their roofs to prevent their shelters from collapsing. We are particularly concerned about flooding in the aftermath of the storm, and especially once the snow starts to melt. As most informal tented sites are built on private property, efforts to provide proper drainage require approval from landlords or municipalities - and that's not always forthcoming.

Conditions have been particularly worrying in Arsal and its outskirts, where altitudes range between 1,300 and 1,800 metres. Refugees in fragile tented sites have started to move to six emergency shelters that have been set up by partners. Local authorities are clearing roads and helping distribute pre-positioned aid. Our partners have also distributed 10,000 hot meals a day since the storm started.

UNHCR Lebanon and its partners began the winter programme in early October to help refugees endure what is for some their fourth winter away from home. We provide the most vulnerable refugees with a combination of cash, weatherproofing kits, stoves, blankets and fuel vouchers, and also carry out flood prevention work where possible. Fuel vouchers are essential for many refugees living above 500 meters.

Since October, we have been able to reach 400,000 refugees with cash and another 250,000 people with weatherproofing kits of plastic sheeting, wood, and basic tools to help them keep their accommodation as warm and dry as possible.


Jordan, too, has been facing snow and sub-zero temperatures. UNHCR is carrying out operations nationwide to support hundreds of thousands of refugees who are struggling for shelter and warmth in both urban areas and camps.

A critical part of the emergency response is the distribution of some 90,000 blankets donated by the United Arab Emirates. The third airlift of blankets arrived in Amman last night from Dubai. The blankets are being transported directly from the airport to Syrian refugees.

At the snow-covered Za'atari refugee camp, UNHCR staff and partners are working in shifts 24 hours a day and have set up a dozen safe centers with mattresses, extra blankets and plenty of heaters. On Wednesday night alone, teams patrolling the camp brought some 600 people to the safe centers after their shelters became too cold or wet. Four people were sent to hospital for treatment.

Melting snow resulted in standing water in several areas of the camp. A total of 12 trucks have been pumping water from flooded areas since yesterday. Several electricity outages occurred due to high demand, and procedures are being put in place to reduce the risk of major failures.

Zaatari camp residents are actively involved in the response. Many refugee families are sharing their shelters with others affected by the bad weather and have been volunteering at the emergency centres.

UNHCR has also dispatched 20,000 blankets throughout the country this week for Iraqi, Sudanese and Somali refugees.

Today we are transporting blankets to southern Jordan as well as to Irbid, which has not been reachable due to bad road conditions.


In Iraq, UNHCR is providing 420,000 people with basic domestic items for winter. We are also constructing 10 additional camps and providing more than 200,000 internally displaced people with basic shelter support. Assistance includes the distribution of blankets, plastic sheeting, stoves, kerosene, jerry cans and weatherproofing kits.

The Duhok area witnessed its first snowfall on Wednesday night. Snow persisted intermittently throughout Thursday. Up to 6 centimeters of snow has also covered IDP sites in the Kadia and Dawodia camps.

In Suleimaniya, heavy rain and snow have hit mountain areas and temperatures are expected to drop to minus -10 degrees through Sunday. Such harsh weather conditions in the area prevented us from erecting new tents for over 50 newly arrived IDPs on Thursday. They have had to stay with relatives in the camp until weather conditions allow for a move.

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, nearly 100,000 refugees and hosting community members received winter kits containing high thermal blankets, plastic sheeting and jerry cans for storing water and kerosene.


Syria is also being hit hard by the storm. Many areas are unreachable due to snow, and temperatures are reaching record lows. Most severely hit are mountainous areas, but all parts of the country are feeling the storm's effects. Minor physical damage has been reported in some temporary shelters, including some flood and wind damage to tents. UNHCR and partners are responding with shelter kits and other help.

In advance of the storm, our field offices in all governorates, in cooperation with the Syrian Red Crescent and local authorities, developed emergency plans and measures to receive displaced people forced to move due to bad weather and to quickly provide materials to repair shelter damage. In Tartous/Homs and Sweida, many temporary shelters were reinforced with extra plastic sheeting just before the storm hit. In addition, winter kits and clothing were distributed in colder regions, including donations of clothes from Japan and Sweden.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Amman, Helene Daubelcour on mobile +962 79 889 1307
  • In Beirut, Ron Redmond on mobile +961 3 390 499
  • In Beirut, Dana Sleiman on mobile +961 3 827 323
  • In Erbil, Bathoul Ahmed on mobile +962 7 9022 4281
  • In Damascus, Firas Al Khateeb on mobile +963 930 40 3228
  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • In Geneva, Ariane Rummery on mobile +41 79 200 7617