Thousands of Iraqis displaced years ago by the fight against so-called Islamic State are still living in flood-prone camps that weren’t built to shelter them through several harsh northern winters, aid officials and camp managers say.
Iraq officially declared victory against IS in December 2017, but 1.8 million people remain unwilling or unable to go home. Some, like the family members of those affiliated with IS, have been rejected by their communities. Others have found their homes destroyed, hometowns unsafe, and no way to make a living.
In much of the north of the country, many of those displaced remain in camps where tents are pitched directly on low-lying ground and only protected from the elements by plastic tarps.
The inadequacy of this protection was exposed during two weeks of torrential rain in late November and early December. At least 21 people were killed and 180 people were injured by flooding in Nineveh and Salah al-Din provinces. Some of the camps in Nineveh – including the seven known as Jeddah 1 to 6 and Qayyarah – were engulfed by water.
More than 7,000 internally displaced people were temporarily evacuated to higher ground, and 2,300 tents were damaged in Qayyarah camp alone, where 7,300 families live.
Most of those evacuated, like Wazza Aboud Atif, 45, who lives in Jeddah 6, have since returned. But they still feel the impact of the floods.
Atif says her tent, blankets, and clothing never fully dried out. She points to her knees to show how high the water got at one point, explaining how it mixed with sewage and swirled back into the tents. Atif says she and her neighbours, one of whom she sheltered with when the water rose, developed rashes from the putrid water.
“Everybody was talking about six months or seven months and then the internally displaced people will return… now three years have passed, and they are still inside the camp.”
Hussein Zewar, general manager of Jeddah 1-6, says many of the camps, including those he oversees, are in desperate need of an upgrade. Some tents haven’t been replaced in years, and aid agencies say donor money is drying up as attention turns away from Iraq.
“This camp was constructed as a temporary camp,” Zewar says. When IS first came to Iraq in mid-June 2014, “everybody was talking about six months or seven months and then the internally displaced people will return… but what happened is now three years have passed, and they are still inside the camp.”
The heavy rains in November and December hit the Jeddah and Qayyarah camps the hardest, but others displacement sites in the north were also affected. Camp conditions in Iraq vary widely, depending on where exactly they are located and who runs and funds them.
Hamam Alil 1 and 2 camps, 40 kilometers south and on higher ground, are managed by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The tents are on raised concrete platforms with gravel around the bases that prevents the ground from getting too muddy.
The lowest areas of land in Hamam Alil 2 were deliberately left unpopulated in case of flooding, and the camp has a drainage system, says Hovig Etyemezian, head of UNHCR’s Mosul office. Consequently, the flooding was not as severe as in Jeddah or Qayyarah.
However, residents of the Hamam Alil camps also complain about the conditions of their tents, saying they have holes in them that allow insects in and fail to keep out the damp and the cold. Etyemezian says that while camp maintenance always responds to complaints, there are 4,600 tents at Hamam Alil so there is sometimes a time lapse between complaint and response, depending on the severity of the issue.
Funding for Jeddah, which is run by a local NGO, comes from the UN’s migration agency, IOM. *Qayarrah is managed by the same NGO but receives its funding from the Danish Refugee Council. Sandra Black, IOM’s spokeswoman in Iraq, says the agency has made efforts to prepare for winter but “camps are vulnerable because they are emergency constructions not permanent structures.”
The agency is “advocating for urgent tent replacement in 2019, and is seeking continued support,” Black says, adding that during this winter season IOM replaced more than 1,200 tents in camps across Iraq, both in preparation for winter and in response to the floods.
But Zewar, the camp manager, says he needs more than new tents if residents are to be kept out of harm’s way the next time heavy rains come: he says it’s time for more permanent living structures and an improved drainage system.
Is money the solution?
For more than a year now, humanitarians have been warning that as Iraq slips from the headlines donors are less interested in giving money for emergency aid like camps, keen to turn their pocketbooks towards reconstruction projects. Last year’s floods, they say, are a cautionary tale.
The UN and the agencies it works with asked for considerably less money to aid Iraqis in 2018 and 2019 than in previous years: $569 million and $701 million respectively, compared to $861 million in 2016 and $985 in 2017.
These appeals are some of the best funded in the world, consistently receiving more than 93 percent of what the UN says is needed (2019 is the exception, but most pledges have not been made yet). Aid officials say the decreasing appeals mean they have less to spend, and that reduction trickles down.
“It’s nothing new,” says UNHCR’s Etyemezian. “Unfortunately, when we have crises that last longer than predicted, and when the media buzz disappears over time, there is less and less interest. The media cover it less, there is also less and less donor interest, and fatigue over time.”
“Most of the tents in Qayyarah were meant for six months but have lasted for two years. They were poorly maintained; but it’s not an issue of will but an issue of means,” says NRC spokesman Tom Peyre-Costa.
The IOM’s Black also says that “decreased funding will impact the living conditions in IDP camps and lower the ability to adequately respond to natural disasters.”
Not everyone agrees the lack of donor money is the problem. An engineer who works in the camps and requests anonymity for fear of backlash from management says aid agencies spend too much on paying and housing international workers, while only a fraction makes it to camp maintenance. “This [flooding] will happen again again again many times because [there is never] any action,” he says. “Because people don't care.”
Etyemezian says UNHCR supports the camps as much as possible, but a certain level of damage after a downpour like last year’s is inevitable. “Even with the amount of money we spend on camps, there is only a degree of prevention you can do,” he says.
Fatiya Rajib, a 38-year-old widow who shares responsibility for 13 children with a neighbour in Hamam Alil 2, has yet to receive a replacement for her flood-damaged tent and blames three recent trips to the doctor on the poor conditions she lives in.
Rajib worries what the future will bring. “We’re afraid of the rain,” she says, looking up at the grey sky. “Whenever there is any rain, we don’t sleep.”
*(An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that IOM funds Qayyarah camp)
(TOP PHOTO: A woman and child walk through Jeddah Camp 6, one of the IDP camps in northern Iraq worst affected by the flooding. CREDIT: Pesha Magid/IRIN)