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Planning for winter in Jordan’s Za’atari camp

Some 300 Syrian refugees had to leave their tents after heavyfall in northern Jordan's Za'atari camp Contributor/IRIN
One hour of heavy rainfall on 2 November soaked Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan, highlighting the need to prepare the camp for the upcoming winter season.

Dozens of tents were damaged, according to refugees and aid workers, forcing families to seek refuge with neighbours and relatives who have pre-fabricated trailers, known as caravans.

“The tent just fell over our head,” said camp resident Mahmoud Jabbawi. “Everything is so wet now.”

No riots or injuries were reported.

In January, when the camp was still relatively new and in emergency response phase, two days of heavy rainfall caused flooding across the camp, and several hundred people were temporarily displaced. Older, unpaved parts of the camp became something of a swamp.

As tensions rose because of the cold and windy conditions, refugees rioted and injured several aid workers at one of the food distribution sites.

In the northern part of Jordan, where Za’atari camp - home to some 120,000 people - is located, temperatures drop to below zero in January, the coldest month of the year.

A week before the first rainfall this year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) told IRIN it had a better plan for winter this year.

“Time is running [out], but we feel we are on top of it,” said Kilian Kleinschmidt, who manages the camp on behalf of UNHCR.

By the end of the year, UNHCR hopes to have replaced all UN tents with caravans donated by Gulf states, as “the key step” to keeping people safe and warm during winter.

“Our goal is to end the era of tents,” Kleinschmidt noted.

Currently, UNHCR needs 4,000 more caravans to ensure each of the 24,000 households in the camp has one. But in recent months, some Gulf States have “suspended” their donations, he said: “It could be financial.”

Caravans are instead sold and re-sold in a black market trade inside the camp, at prices few refugees can afford. With winter approaching, refugees say prices have risen to as high 450 Jordanian dinars (US$635), leaving families who cannot afford them vulnerable to the elements.

Jabbawi, who has been in the camp since February, has not yet received a caravan and cannot afford to buy one.

“There are so many of them on sale now, but if I had that much money, why would I even be living in a camp?” he told IRIN.

Heating and infrastructure

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) will distribute a gas heater for each household in the camp at the beginning of December, according to country director Carsten Hansen. Each household will also receive one gas cylinder, along with vouchers for gas refills every two weeks until the end of February 2014.

Illegally wired electricity cables also pose a risk of fires, come winter.

“This is very dangerous,” Kleinschmidt said. “We are very concerned about what will happen when it rains with these wires hanging everywhere.”

UNHCR needs $6 million to erect poles that would lift the wires out of harm’s way and improve the sewage system in the camp.

For its part, World Vision has secured $1 million in funding to rehabilitate the older, unpaved parts of the camp, including digging drainage to improve sanitation in case of heavy rainfall. “Standing water, especially when it mixes with drainage and sewage water, leaves people at risk of waterborne diseases,” said Sabrina Pourman, programmes director at World Vision. The organization hopes to begin the work in the next few weeks, she said.

Community engagement

Aid workers have placed greater focus this year on engaging the community when planning for winter; they credit this community consultation for “improved” security in the camp.

“Last year, although we tried, the situation was different and it was almost impossible to have focus group sessions and discuss planning with refugees as tension was so high,” said Carlo Gherardi, who manages NRC’s shelter and non-food item projects.

NRC is building a new and bigger distribution compound, specifically for distributing gas heaters and cylinders this year, to provide a “safer area”, he added. 

Amid these plans and others, one of the biggest challenges is coordination.

“We have so many pieces thrown at the table right now,” Kleinschmidt told IRIN. “We need to get the puzzle together.”

Urban areas

Refugees living outside the camp in Jordanian towns and cities are also at risk. In August, NGO ACTED visited the shelters of 299 Syrian refugees and their Jordanian hosts in northern governorates.

It found 20 percent of them to be living in “sub-standard accommodation”, including basements, temporary settlements and livestock farms. More than a third of families interviewed had no heating, especially those living in outdoor rooms; and nearly three-quarters had at least partial damage to their shelter. Sixty-five percent said their roofs were not waterproof. Half needed doors.

In response to these needs, ACTED is providing shelter kits for 350 households in the host communities.

“Assistance to meet winter needs is required in order to ensure families are properly protected against the winter conditions and associated increased risk of illness attributed to exposure,” Paul Reglinski of ACTED told IRIN.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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