Snow is causing an avalanche of suffering in the Middle East

There is much beauty to be found in the wintry region this January, but it will be lost on many

Snow covers the Roman historic site of Baalbek in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. AFP

The only things coming thicker and faster than the snowfall witnessed across much of the Middle East this week are photographs of it. The flurry of attention is understandable; while the region gets some snow every year, recent blankets have covered areas where it is far less common. Even cities used to freezing weather got a much heavier rate.

In Iraq’s Kurdistan autonomous region, revellers danced around a fire; in Lebanon, cedar trees were blanketed, as were the Roman ruins at Baalbek; in Istanbul, children slid through the streets of Kucukcekmece on sleds. And near the western Saudi city of Tabuk, friends drank tea and started a snow fight.

Pictures of children playing in the snow also came out of Syria, but in a far grimmer setting: a camp for internally displaced people in Raju. Accompanying images captured children removing snow from the tops of tents in which they were living; last week, a child died and their mother was put in intensive care after the roof of the shelter in which they were staying collapsed under the weight of snowfall. In Aleppo province, two other children are reported to have died as a result of freezing temperatures. According to the UN, at least 22 sites in Aleppo and nine in Idlib have been affected, a crisis touching 429 displaced families.

In Jordan, authorities are on alert to deal with plunging temperatures. Prime Minister Bisher Al Khasawneh has highlighted the need to have enough blankets for Syrian refugee camps in his country, and prepare for the possibility of flash floods within them.

The cold does not just pose a danger to those who are displaced. Muhammad Addali, who lives in the Lebanese town of Fneidek, spoke to The National about how the country’s economic crisis is hampering his ability to heat his home, where he lives with his family, including a four-month-old baby. “I broke two doors in my house to burn for heating”, he said.

Even in capital cities people are suffering. In Baghdad, temperatures are reaching close to 0°C at night. This is the same city that saw record summer highs in 2020, reaching almost 53°C. In both seasons, frequent power cuts that can last most of the day make it intolerably difficult to heat or cool homes. Vulnerable communities across the Arab world, particularly in countries impacted by conflict, are suffering from similarly extreme conditions.

The situation affecting refugees, impoverished workers in rural areas and city-dwellers is a reminder of how short-term, flash events can exacerbate unsolved longstanding problems. The danger posed by fragile tents during snowstorms would not be an issue if more had been done during the past 10 years to house refugees. Baghdad would not be so cold if politicians had focussed minds earlier on fixing the country’s collapsing electricity network, and people would not be burning household items in Lebanon if the economy was not so much the victim of corruption and chronic mismanagement.

On a global level, an increase in storms, floods, snow and drought, all of which the Middle East suffered in 2021, must be a call to take the climate crisis seriously.

Snow is a joyous novelty for the region, and people should celebrate pictures of its wintry beauty, from Egypt to Iraq. Amid the excitement, however, it is worth remembering that in the valleys bordering blanketed mountains, people, many of whom were already dealing with enough hardship, might be finding themselves in a fight for survival. They must be provided with all the help and support possible.

Published: January 28, 2022, 3:00 AM
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