When Hell Freezes Over: Challenges for Cold Climate Response



This article originally appeared on the Humanitarian Coalition’s Relief to Recovery blog here.


cold climate response 3

Storm Zeina swept through the Middle East in January and left over 400,000 Syrian refugees out in the cold in Lebanon.

There, 1 in 5 residents are Syrian refugees living in formal and informal settlements, unfinished shelters are collapsing under the weight of snow and ice, freezing flood water is oozing into tents and people are dying from hypothermia. This marks the 4th winter that Syrian IDPs have endured unbearable conditions and, while it likely will not be the last, it will be for some. So what separates a cold climate response from a temperate response?

These days, technological innovations supporting relief initiatives abound; drones transport goods to isolated communities, solar powered lights and heating units exist and mobile cash transfers spur camp commerce. But what exists to address the urgency of cold? Even the SPHERE standards separate the cold from the temperate by little more than shelter size, location and composition of “adequate thermal comfort”.[1] One key innovation is the winterized thermal tent, which has a small opening for a stovepipe so tenants can cook and stay warm inside. Some tents come with thermal groundsheets, which act as a third layer to further insulate the tents and guard against incoming water.[2]

Organizations have learned from the resiliency of IDPs themselves. Shelterbox Australia witnessed refugees in North Korea lining their tents with harvested crops for insulation and packing snow along the outside of the tent, sealing it to the ground.[3] After Zeina, Oxfam helped refugees in Jordan dig trenches around tents to prevent flooding.[4]

Many organizations also deliver winter kits. These can include extra plastic sheeting and repair kits for shelters, shovels, stoves or heaters along with blankets, fuel and vouchers. Save the Children provides winterization kits specifically for infants.

Tactile innovations need to be complemented by creative thinking for maximum impact. The importance of a context-specific response was apparent following the response to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. An ALNAP report cited “piles of inappropriate second-hand clothing littering the streets or being used as fuel.”[5] A co-ordinated strategy, dubbed the “One Warm Room” project, aimed to provide one warm room for each family before winter set in. Now, agencies are distributing winterization kits in early fall and are showing a keen focus on reaching those in isolated territories and high altitudes first.[6]

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This change in strategy has organizations working to bolster recovery sooner. In 2013, a state of emergency was declared in Peru after an unanticipated cold snap swept through Puno, Cuzco, Huancavelica, Apurimac and the Ayacucho Highlands. These regions endured unprecedented levels of snow, rain and cold temperatures that destroyed crops and killed thousands of people and over 20 000 livestock – a devastating blow for subsistence farmers. The government supplied relief goods and deployed heavy machinery, making deliveries to inaccessible communities possible. The IFRC collaborated with the government and included in their winterization kits food for livestock and veterinary supplies so livestock would have a better chance surviving the cold.[7] This innovative approach helped to ease the transition from recovery to reconstruction.

The urgency of cold cannot be understated – for immediate disaster responses and protracted crises like the situation for Syrian refugees. According to the UN, the crisis is severely underfunded, suffering from logistical and organizational gaps and setbacks.[8] However, the UNHCR reports that of the 400,000 registered Syrian IDPs in Lebanon, 344,000 received winterization kits, 174,000 in Jordan received winterization cash allowances and winterization responses are underway in Iraq and Turkey.[9] Despite this progress, more must to be done to prevent refugees from suffering further undue hardship.

Click here to learn more about the UNHCR’s coordinated Regional Winterization Programme for the Middle East.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPc_8D93o5o (Situation in Lebanon, By UNHCR)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcWE9HToCdY (Tent reinforcing after weight of snow destroyed it)



[1] The Sphere Handbook. Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. p. 258

Available Online: http://www.sphereproject.org/handbook/

[2] https://shelterboxaustralia.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/slideshow-shelterbox-working-in-cold-climates/

[3] https://shelterboxaustralia.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/slideshow-shelterbox-working-in-cold-climates/

[4] http://www.oxfam.ca/blogs/thousands-syrian-refugees-battle-winter-storm-limited-means

[5] http://www.alnap.org/pool/files/1235.pdf

[6] http://www.unhcr.org/54afd25a9.html

[7] http://www.ifrc.org/ar/news-and-media/news-stories/americas/peru/effects-of-cold-weather-inspire-innovative-approach-to-relief-in-peru-63248/

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/07/middle-east-snowstorm-syrian-refugees

[9] UNHCR. Syria Situation: Regional Winterization Programme Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey. 10 – 16 January 2014. Available online download: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/download.php?id=4275


Sarah Anstett

Sarah Anstett

Sarah is a writer, researcher, and development practitioner currently based in Toronto, Canada.

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