Last autumn and winter was spent worrying about decreasing temperatures, the winterization of the refugee camps, and the need to forage for firewood on the streets of Aleppo. Now, there’s a new fear: the sun. With limited international donations, the UN is struggling to provide basic goods and services to the nearly 1.5 million registered refugees scattered across the Levant and the greater region. It has identified nearly 7 million Syrians in need inside the country, whose government continually restricts access for humanitarian agencies. These numbers have yet to peak. The figures were collected after a time of not only escalating violence, but moderate weather conditions. What will happen if the Syrian conflict continues along this trajectory of stalemate, intensifying air strikes, and possible chemical weapon attacks in the context of a brutally hot Middle Eastern summer?
International sanctions have severely limited Syria’s access to electricity over the past year. Since late 2011, the government has implemented systematic electricity cuts to conserve (some argue to hoard) the limited amount of electricity available in the country. These cuts have left families in the dark, with no ability to cook or cool their homes for hours on end. As temperatures start to rise and Syrians struggle to power their fans, heat strokes will undoubtedly spike throughout the country. Larger families living in tight dwellings or bombarded areas inside Syria are particularly at risk due to their limited mobility and access to basic necessities – namely, water.
Water has long been likened to gold in the Middle East due to its scarcity. In Syria, power outages limit access to water, especially in bombarded cities like Aleppo. Moreover, in host countries like Jordan, a country recognized by Oxfam as “one of the most water-stressed in the world,” the addition of nearly 450,000 refugees is straining local communities.
In the border town of Mafraq, locals have suffered through weeks with no water due to the stress of the arrival of thousands of Syrians, and water costs have soared due to its scarcity. As the summer sun falls on Jordan, this pressure will not only amount to spikes of fatal dehydration, but it may also prompt hostility from suffering locals. These conditions will only get worse as violence continues to force more Syrians to flood already crowded refugee camps. This lack of water compounds another critical problem for Syrians: sanitation and disease. Due to the limited waste management capabilities, liberated areas, battlefield cities and refugee camps have become breeding grounds for diseases. In the Dormuz refugee camp in Iraq, a representative of Refugee International reported witnessing a child splashing around in a pool of compiled sewage. After speaking with Syrian refugees in the camp, he explained that their greatest fear is that “summer will bring diseases on a massive scale.”
Such fears are absolutely warranted, and the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) officials are already preparing for potential outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and malaria once these pools of trash are exposed to extreme heat. Moreover, as water resources drain, the ability to keep these camps and living spaces sanitary will become even more difficult, allowing these diseases to spread not only throughout the camps but also to host communities. In Syria, the threat of communicable diseases is especially precarious due to severe medical supply shortages throughout the country. The WHO says that about 90 percent of the available medication in Syria was domestically produced before the revolution, and that most of the production took place in factories that have been destroyed by bombing campaigns and constant heavy fighting.
Merchants have stopped traveling dangerous roads to distribute medicine across the country for fear of death, prices for the little remaining medication have soared, and both international sanctions and restricted access for agencies like the Red Crescent and UN agencies have made the distribution of medicine sourced from abroad incredibly difficult. According to the Oxford Journal of Public Health, these problems are only amplified as extreme summer temperatures “undermine the vaccines’ cold chain supplies contributing to interruptions in the vaccination program.” The journal goes on to explain that long-term effects of these shortages could include a “loss of gains made in infection prevention and control in diseases … and a rise in morbidity and mortality among children.”
As Syrians are forced out of their homes and all movement in the country is restricted, access to electricity, water and medical supplies is heavily limited. As temperatures rise in the coming months, these shortages are likely to worsen and spur diseases that will threaten both Syrians and the citizens of their host countries.