At least two people were killed and 14 injured as the first snowfall of the season hit Syria and Lebanon. High winds and freezing temperatures affected refugee camps and disrupted international aid. More severe weather is expected this winter.
The storm, named ‘Alexa,’ took the lives of two people and injured 14 others in Lebanon, Ya Libnan reported, citing Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh.
The winter storm caused transportation chaos in the region and grounded the UN humanitarian airlift, which was scheduled to bring food and supplies from Iraq to the northeastern Kurdish areas of Syria. Tens of thousands of people are isolated in those areas, waiting for the aid to arrive.
"Qamishli airport (in Syria) has suspended all flights due to weather conditions, snow and poor visibility," UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHR) spokesman Dan McNorton told Reuters. "We're not going to be able to make those flights happen until the weather improves.”
The storm is estimated to last until Saturday, with temperatures plummeting below seven degrees Celsius in mountainous regions of Lebanon.
"I don't know if this tent will hold up, it's just a few flimsy pieces of metal holding it up," refugee Abu Suleiman told AP. He resides in the Lebanese town of Marj, located near the border with Syria.
In the northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal, temperatures hovered just above zero degrees Celsius. A member of the town’s municipal council, Wafiq Khalaf, said that refugees were “shivering with cold, especially the ones in tents.”
"At the moment there is more than 10 centimeters of snow on the ground, but more is expected," he told AFP.
Dana Sleiman of the UNHR expressed concern for Syrian refugees during the winter months, adding that there are at least 80,000 Syrians in Lebanon who will be spending the entire season in tents.
Refugee tents have dirt floors which turn to mud during harsh weather. The units do not adequately protect against wind and snow, which easily reach inside the tents.
More than 835,000 Syrian refugees are currently living in Lebanon. The country’s government decided not house the refugees in formal camps, due to fears that they would stay permanently.
A spokesman for the UN Children's Fund, Simon Ingram, stated that there is a lack of aid for all the refugees. "The needs will outstrip what we and our partners are able to provide," he said.
The harsh weather coincides with a polio vaccination campaign which seeks to vaccinate 750,000 children in Lebanon. A polio outbreak was confirmed in eastern Syria in October.
"Polio spreads through water and sewage," Ingram said. "This is one the big dangers - overflowing drains.”
The snow storm marks the third winter since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.
Meteorologists have forecasted that the worst of the winter is yet to come, making life more difficult for the 2.2 million refugees living outside Syria and the millions more who are displaced inside the country.
Chief of Lebanon's Meteorological Department, Mark Whaybeh, said the weather has worsened over the past several years. "We are still at the beginning of the season," he said. "We should have rain and cold periods during the next two months."
The inclement weather has not stopped the conflict in Syria, with rebel forces continuing to fight the government. More than 100,000 people have died since the conflict began, according to UN estimates.
The view of the city of Homs covered with snow: