Last week, a car bomb exploded in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, killing five and marking the first major attack in this area in over a year. While this terrorist operation adds to the already devastating toll of more than 5, 500 people killed in Iraq by the Islamic State, more people will probably die in 2014 not from these fanatics but from something far deadlier and widespread – the cold.
I’ve just returned from a month in northern Iraq, and already conditions are worsening as the chilly winter rains have started. In areas like Dohuk governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the elevation is higher and the landscape is mountainous, average low temperatures in December and January can reach freezing levels. Even in Basra governorate in southern Iraq, often associated with sweltering desert heat, the region can experience average lows of 44’F/7’C during this time of year.
Yet what makes the 2014-2015 winter season particularly cruel this time is that it arrives with acute political factors that amplify its dangers for the Iraqi people, including:
Massive Human Displacement: As of last month, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated there were nearly 2.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Iraq. Of that number, more than one-third of this population is currently living in non-sustainable shelter arrangements, such as school buildings, religious buildings, abandoned stores, unfinished construction sites and open land. Many of these IDPs are wearing nothing more than the clothes they took with them when they fled their homes.
These living arrangements don’t provide the necessary shelter from the harsh winter weather. For example, in unfinished buildings — that are often nothing more than the skeletal concrete frames of buildings — the lack of walls, insulation, and facilities make it treacherous for the more than 630,000 IDPs who lack proper housing.
A Lack of Fuel: In previous years, the Kurdistan regional government has provided fuel subsidies to Syrian refugees residing in camps. This reduced the overall price of fuel to ease the burden on both refugees and aid agencies that provide them support. At this time last year, the Syrian refugees in the region totaled 220,000.
Sadly, due to escalating violence and displacement, the number of affected IDPs this year exceeds 2 million; a caseload that is far greater than those that received fuel subsides last year. While these figures keep rising, the ongoing oil negotiations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government are hindering immediate decisions on fuel assistance.
Adding to this miserable condition is that fighting are affecting key oil refineries, causing power outages and fuel shortages throughout the country. As of this week, neither the Kurdish nor Iraqi governments have made any announcements whether subsidies will be provided, which creates greater uncertainty. It remains unclear if those most in need of assistance will have the necessary provisions to keep warm.
Here’s the good news: the international community can help halt this slow-moving disaster for a fraction of the cost that the coalition is currently spending to fight the Islamic State. The international community must provide immediate assistance to Iraqis during the winter season in the form of funding towards fuel, winter clothing, shelter, blankets, stoves, and health care. “These needs are time sensitive and there is little room for delay,” said UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, last week.
Yet adopting a “wait-and-see” approach could end in many lives lost due to weather conditions, as well as a swelling number of young children and the elderly who could develop chronic health conditions resulting from the cold.
Certainly, efforts by a regional and international coalition to contain the spread of the Islamic State’s influence and territory is necessary in preventing the region from falling more deeply into chaos. However, with the cold fast approaching, the international community cannot afford to ignore the distressing effects winter will take on the most vulnerable of Iraqis.
Winter is coming, and unlike the Islamic State, it will soon conquer the whole country.
Shilpa Nadhan is an international humanitarian worker that has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. She is based in Washington, D.C.
photo: 22 Oct. 2014, Zakho, Iraq: In the high altitude region of northern Kurdistan, temperatures can often drop below zero degrees Celsius at night. For many Iraqis, who fled ISIL with nothing but the clothes on their backs, sudden changes in temperatures have left them entirely dependent on humanitarian agencies. Credit: OCHA/Iason Athanasiadis