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5 things you should know about the lack of shelter in Gaza

Step Haiselden in Kahramanmaras, Türkiye last year after the devastating earthquake. Credit: Pablo Medina/IFRC

Step Haiselden in Kahramanmaras, Türkiye last year after the devastating earthquake. Credit: Pablo Medina/IFRC

Step Haiselden is CARE’s Global Shelter Team Leader. He is a structural engineer and has worked on humanitarian responses on five continents. He currently supports CARE West Bank/Gaza’s team to ensure shelter assistance meets people’s urgent needs. Here are the five things he thinks it's most important for people to know about what's going on right now in Gaza.

1. What is the shelter situation of people in Gaza at the moment? How do people live?

Life for people in the Gaza Strip right now is about survival, and that is extremely challenging.

For almost four months, people have been fleeing constant bombardment. Many of the Palestinians we talk to already had to move locations three or four times, and often don’t know where to go as there is basically nowhere safe in Gaza anymore.

Most internally displaced people – around 1.7 million – live in shelters such as schools, community buildings, or hospitals.

Some people live with relatives or host families, but unfortunately, many others have no choice but to make a makeshift shelter in the street from salvaged material and tarpaulins.

Most shelters are already at four or five times their capacity, and there is simply no space to host even more people.

Families fled with nothing but the clothes they were wearing in October 2023, at the start of the current conflict. Most do not have warm clothes to protect them from nighttime temperatures that right now reach as low as five degrees Celsius (41F).

People lack everything that we would call the basics for survival: a warm place to sleep, toilets, clean water, food, and medical care.

People who have survived the bombs until now fear their children will die from disease or starve to death.

2. How about the situation of women and girls?

This Palestinian family, who reside in the ruins of the Jabalia refugee camp, has been displaced multiple times since Oct. 7. They relocated to Gaza City to stay with relatives as the fighting intensified, but they returned home to Jabalia two months ago, in November, when an airstrike struck the house and killed five members of the family. Photo: Grayscale/CARE

When disaster strikes, women and girls are often even more negatively impacted than everyone else. Gaza is no exception. So far, more than 70 percent of the over 27,300 people who have been killed since October are women and children.

On average, two mothers have been killed every hour in Gaza, and over 3,000 women have become widows, struggling to make ends meet for their children after their husbands were killed. The majority of the internally displaced are women and children. All forms of shelter are immensely crowded, with dozens of people sharing small rooms or tents that were never meant to be used as long-term accommodation.

The women we speak to say there is no privacy, and they often sleep next to people they have never met before.

Approximately 500 people share one toilet in some shelters and there are no hygiene supplies. This is particularly hard for women who are menstruating, pregnant women, or those who have recently given birth. Even before the recent escalation, malnutrition rates and anemia were high among pregnant women.

We are extremely worried that the impact this lack of adequate shelter, basic water and food supply has on mothers and their children will dramatically increase malnutrition and disease, with long-term impacts on childhood development.

Unfortunately, gender-based violence and intimate partner violence are also on the rise. The provision of adequate shelter can help mitigate this risk.

3. What are the main gaps regarding people’s shelters?

Palestinians living in the Jabalia camp have been displaced multiple times since Oct. 7 and are living in dire conditions among the ruined buildings. Photo: Grayscale/CARE

Everything, really. We know that the collective shelters are severely overcrowded. Many sleep on thin mats, or on the cold floor, and have only a few blankets. People had to flee multiple times and it is hard to move with bulky mattresses and bedding. Even after four months, there aren’t enough blankets available, and most families cannot afford the inflated market prices. Food has become so scarce that the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] has declared that the entire population of Gaza – 2.2 million people – is at imminent risk of famine, an incredibly high and unprecedented number.

Again, women and girls are particularly affected. Most mothers we speak to drastically reduce their own food intake to ensure their children can eat. Winter rain and flooding are another big problem, causing sewage to leak into some tents on a daily basis. In some areas, UNICEF has reported children only have access to about 1.5 to two liters of water per day, below the absolute minimum of three liters. Even in an emergency, people should have access to 15 liters per day to be able to drink, cook, [and] wash themselves and their shelters.

Lack of water also means that people cannot adhere to basic personal hygiene practices and must drink from unsafe sources, which in turn has caused the outbreak of diseases such as watery diarrhea and scabies.

We are gravely concerned about a cholera outbreak, too.

All of these disease outbreaks are happening in an environment where only 14 of 26 hospitals are still functioning, and people struggle to reach medical care due to the dangers when moving from one location to another in a warzone with no escape (editor’s note: As of Feb. 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported there are no fully functional hospitals in Gaza, with 13 of the 36 hospitals only partially functional).

4. What about people’s mental health in these difficult circumstances?

Palestinians living in the Jabalia camp. Photo: Grayscale Media /CARE

I think mental health is one of the most forgotten issues and something we don’t talk about enough. I have worked in many humanitarian emergencies, including last year’s earthquake in Türkiye, the response to Cyclone Idai in Mozambique in 2019, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Usually, after a flood or an earthquake – as horrible as this is – the event is over, and people can start cleaning up and recovering. This of course often takes many months and sometimes years and is also incredibly difficult.

But in Gaza the bombings are still ongoing, and apart from a few days of pause in late November, there has been no respite.

At the beginning of the crisis, people were hoping the violence would stop in a matter of a few weeks. But the war is still ongoing, and women, men, and children are dying with nowhere safe to go.

We hear from many mothers that their children have stopped eating or speaking and cry with every loud sound they hear, as they are so traumatized from everything they have seen.

Approximately 10,000 children have lost their fathers, and some have seen their entire family die in front of their eyes.

Quite apart from the bombing, the horrific conditions people live in causes immense additional stress. Seven percent of the population suffers from diarrhea, almost 10 percent from respiratory diseases, which is no surprise given there is dust everywhere from all the damaged buildings.

Imagine, in such a situation, sharing a toilet with hundreds of others, having no medication and no warm bed to sleep in. You haven’t slept properly for months, not eaten, every night you wake because of the bombs, you are cold, worry about your relatives, don’t know how to feed your children and whether they will ever go back to school or have a life without constantly fearing every moment may be their last.

The mental stress people are experiencing is enormous. And there is no end in sight.

5. What is most important right now? What is CARE doing?

A Palestinian man cooks a meal using a wood fire due to the lack of cooking gas and electricity in the Jabalia refugee camp. Photo: Grayscale/CARE

More than 2.2 million people urgently need assistance. I live in the UK, and this is almost twice the population of Birmingham, our second-largest city. I think it is really important not to become immune to the human meaning of the numbers and to make sure that all of those people receive the help they so urgently need.

CARE and other organizations continue to call for an immediate ceasefire, and for parties to uphold their obligations under international law. The most important thing right now is that we can reach all the people in need and mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that is underway. Our CARE team in Gaza and their partners have distributed drinking water, hygiene kits, and shelter items such as blankets and mattresses to almost 100,000 people.

Just last week, our partners have been distributing “sealing off kits” that allow people to seal off broken windows with plastic sheets in lightly damaged buildings and cover damaged roofs with tarpaulins.

But much more is needed.

So far, only a fifth of the 50,000 needed tents have reached Gaza. We also know that tens of thousands of unexploded devices remain, an incredibly high number. These unexploded missiles and projectiles in the rubble need to be tackled as soon as possible. Otherwise, even more people will die or get severely injured.

In the long-term, of course, houses need to be rebuilt. Over half of the buildings in Gaza have been destroyed, and most people, like our colleagues, have no home to return to.

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