As snow hits Lebanon, people burn rubbish and clothes to stay warm

Few can afford heating with soaring inflation

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Freezing temperatures and snowstorms have worsened living conditions across Lebanon, where most people are already struggling to survive the country’s economic crisis.

Few can afford fuel for heating or electricity amid widespread power cuts, forcing many to burn waste, plastic, or even their own clothes.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Ali Awada, a coffee shop owner in the eastern town of Baalbek. “People are burning plastic. People are burning shoes,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

The crisis has exacerbated already stark inequalities. “The rich and thieves keep warm. The poor struggle to fill a small water bottle with fuel and watch it burn all night, drop by drop,” said Mr Awada.

Last November, the UN special rapporteur on poverty blasted “outrageous levels of inequality.” Politicians are widely considered to be responsible for the country’s two-year long economic crisis, described by the rapporteur as a “human-made disaster.”

The government has failed to help people in Baalbek, forcing some to cut trees near the city of around 100,000 people to keep warm, Mr Awada told The National.

“The country and its people need support, but it shouldn’t be sent to the state and ministers who steal from us,” said Mr Awada, echoing widespread mistrust with the country’s leadership.

The cost of a tonne of wood is now equivalent to five times the minimum wage, selling for 3 million Lebanese pounds ($120) while 20 litres of diesel is now nearly 10 times what it cost three years ago.

Lebanon’s eastern, impoverished region of the Bekaa hosts close to 40 per cent of the Syrian refugees in the country. There are around one million Syrians living in Lebanon, one sixth of the country’s total population. Most of them fled the Syrian civil war which started in 2011.

As Lebanon’s economic crisis worsens amid political paralysis and bickering, an increasing number of Lebanese are living in dismal conditions close to those of refugee populations.

“This is a much harsher winter season than previous ones because of the economic crisis, which has made prices soar,” said Paula Barrachina Esteban, head of communications for UNHCR in Lebanon. “The situation is not only dire for refugees. Lebanese families are also suffering this winter.”

“In the Bekaa, we’re seeing refugee settlements filled with snow. Many houses have been flooded by the rain. Houses have water leaks. Refugee settlements are made of tents made of very flimsy materials like tarpaulin and pieces of wood,” said Ms Esteban.

Ms Esteban said that she spoke to a single mother of four in Bekaa who has been sleeping on a wet mattress for several days, trying to dry it out in the sun during the day.

“Many refugees have put old car tyres they found on the street or buckets on top of the tarpaulin roofs to stop the wind from blowing the roof off, but because the structure of the roof and of homes are so weak, the water is leaking in and many refugees are now living in houses that are flooded,” Ms Esteban said.

Even in Beirut, which is comparatively warmer than the Bekaa at around 8°C at night, heating homes is a struggle. Some heat water on gas stoves or take cold showers.

“It’s very cold, and there’s only a few hours of electricity a day,” said Hussein, a Syrian doorman who works and lives in central Beirut with his family of eight children.

The collapse of the state-run national electricity company has pushed most people to rely on expensive private generators, but their output is not always powerful enough to turn on electric heaters.

“We wear a lot of clothes,” said Hussein. “We dress the children well and they’re OK. Thank God.”

Updated: January 20, 2022, 7:01 PM