Human Rights |

Bekaa Valley camps flooded in winter storms

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

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Informal camps housing Syrian refugees in Lebanon's Bar Elias have experienced flooding early this year. [Photo courtesy of the Litani River Authority]

Syrian refugees living in informal camps near al-Marj and Bar Elias in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley have been severely affected by an early January storm.

Heavy rains caused the Litani River to flood, inundating a large number of tents in these informal settlements, as it had done the year before.

This time the damage was less severe, aid workers told Al-Mashareq, as humanitarian organisations had taken preventive measures ahead of the winter.

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Humanitarian organisations have worked to limit the impact of flooding in parts of the Bekaa Valley where there are informal Syrian refugee camps. [Photo courtesy of Sawa for Development and Aid]

Basmeh and Zeitooneh organisation set up a centre to shelter the affected refugees, providing them with food and a warm place to stay, said Ahmed al-Samman, who heads the organisation's Bekaa operations.

Several other organisations have taken action to ensure the refugees do not experience a repeat of last year's devastation.

Preventive measures

Sawa for Development and Aid has been reinforcing the river banks with barriers to prevent it from flooding again, in co-operation with a number of municipalities, said Omar Abdullah, who works with the organisation.

"We did not wait for winter to reinforce the river banks at points near the informal Syrian refugee camps," he told Al-Mashareq.

Work began at the end of last summer in Bar Elias, where earthen berms were erected along the river's course to prevent it from flooding, he said.

This year's storm did not cause as much damage to the informal camps, he said, noting that only the most vulnerable among them, including Saadnayel, al-Omariya and Hawsh al-Harima, were badly affected.

"We were forced to vacate those camps and evacuate their residents to shelters," Abdullah said, noting that some camp residents moved in temporarily with relatives or friends.

Al-Omariya camp, an informal settlement of about 52 tents, "was hardest hit by the flooding, and we were forced to evacuate 25 families (175 people)", he said.

Sawa has been working with the Ministry of Social Affairs, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and local municipalities "to implement the necessary measures to prevent the camps from being flooded", Abdullah said.

These include digging trenches inside the informal camps to divert the flow of flood water, he said.

"We used pumps to pump water out of the settlements and provided heating appliances to the families," he said.

In co-operation with the ministry, UNHCR and its partners "assessed the damage sustained by the settlements and distributed blankets and mattresses", said UNHCR Lebanon public information officer Lisa Abu Khaled.

The UN agency is also following up on the ongoing work inside the settlements, particularly the digging of trenches to drain the flood water, she said.

Informal settlements

Since 2018, the Litani River Authority has been calling for the removal of informal settlements on the river banks that are at risk from flooding, authority chairman Sami Alawiyeh told Al-Mashareq.

These settlements also have contributed to a spike in water pollution.

When the river flooded last winter, refugees were temporarily relocated from informal settlements along the river in several locations, but they later returned to the flooded settlements, he said.

Heavy rainfall this winter caused the river to flood again, and some informal settlements were inundated once again, he said.

The Litani River Authority "took action 10 days before the rainstorms hit, and sent a map to the authorities concerned with refugee affairs identifying the locations that could be flooded", he said.

But the damage this year was "light compared to last winter", he said, as the Litani River Authority required the municipalities in the area to clean up the course of the river.

This move helped to safeguard the lives of Syrian refugees, he said, and ensure there was not another crisis on the same scale as last year's.

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Unfortunately, nobody has helped us. I have documented pictures and videos. Until now, nobody has helped us. God suffices me and He is the best disposer of affairs!

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