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Syria earthquakes: preparing for tomorrow

Published on Tuesday 14 March 2023

More than a month after the disaster, it is time to evaluate the current situation. While emergency actions are still underway, our teams are already preparing for longer term operations. Thomas Janny, geographical manager for the Middle East region for SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, talks about the aid provided so far, the risks of an epidemic and the challenges ahead.   

How many people have died in the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria?  

According to the latest figures, over 50,000 people have died in both countries. The death toll is higher in Turkey, where almost 44,000 people are believed to have died, while 6,000 people died in Syria. According to local Syrian authorities, this figure is expected to stabilize. Most of the missing persons buried under the rubble have been found and identified.    

According to the latest information, the rubble has started to be removed. What is the status of the material damage?    

Difficult access to Syria has limited international support for search and rescue operations. One local organization has been struggling to find people trapped under the rubble. They have been able to benefit from the help of the population who have come to support the efforts. This search phase is now over. Not all the infrastructure due to the earthquakes, but the material damage remains very significant. Many are now homeless and the resources needed to clear the area are very limited, although the needs are considerable.   

What types of infrastructure have been most affected by the earthquakes?    

In north-western Syria, the earthquakes spared no one. Rural, semi-rural, peri-urban and urban areas were all affected. Evidently, it is in the urban areas where there is a greater concentration of high buildings and infrastructure that the damage has been most considerable. However, the precariousness of the buildings, the lack of a clear legal framework and the failure to comply with construction standards meant that even full-floor houses collapsed.

  • 22.1 million inhabitants
  • 150th out of 191 countries on the Human Development Index
  • 872,261 people helped

Before the earthquakes, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL concentrated most of its activities in camps for internally displaced people living in makeshift housing such as tents and makeshift constructions. Overall, these shelters were less affected by the earthquakes. For the time being, there are no clear and precise figures on the number of destroyed infrastructures but field assessments are underway.   

In regards to material and human damage, what was SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL’s first strategy in Syria?    

We have been working in Syria with a direct implementation capacity for 10 years. We have teams present in the area. This experience acquired in the field has enabled us to be reactive and to quickly develop an emergency response. An earthquake is sudden, it has a massive impact, it traumatizes the population and it upsets the whole world. The first few days after the disaster are extremely important in order to meet the immense new needs that come on top of those of already vulnerable populations. For this reason, we have focused our efforts on mobilizing the resources and materials already available. Our teams on the ground have been very helpful in meeting the priority needs of the population, namely food, water and shelter. Within 48 hours of the first tremors, our teams carried out the first distributions of hygiene kits and kits for new arrivals, which include all the basic necessities to set up a tent and be able to eat and wash. The question of access to food quickly became an issue. Many people lost their homes and shopkeepers had their shops razed to the ground by the disaster. We therefore distributed food kits with pre-prepared food. As regards access to drinking water, we very quickly deployed tankers to bring water to the affected populations.   

What is SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL’s mid and long-term strategy?  

It is important to understand that these earthquakes hit populations that were already partly dependent on humanitarian aid. However, this disaster poses new challenges. In addition to the immediate actions that we have carried out and that will continue, Solidarités International is assessing the needs in terms of rehabilitation and repair of water supply systems. We are also going to launch cash transfer activities to help relaunch economic activity and assist the population.  

So, in parallel to this first emergency response, we have already started to reflect and prepare the actions that we will implement in the longer term.  This exercise is a challenge because we need to be able to plan while remaining flexible and adapting constantly according to the changing context (North-West Syria is a war zone), the needs of the population and the interventions of other international or local actors. One of our main difficulties is the very complex access to the area. We work across borders, accessing through Turkey. Our capacity to send expertise is therefore limited. Nevertheless, we can count on the support of our team members on the ground, who are mostly local. Moreover, even if we have a good idea of the current and future needs of the population, we need to confirm them based on field assessments. To do this, it is necessary to go and meet the affected populations to find out their priority needs, to consult the local authorities and to exchange with the other NGOs present. To work intelligently and avoid harming people, it is necessary to take all these actors and factors into account. It is necessary to ensure the relevance, feasibility and complementarity of the actions that Solidarités will implement.  

With the lack of access to functional toilets and drinking water points, we understand that hygiene conditions in the affected countries are deplorable. What link can be made between the lack of access to water and the risk of epidemics?    

To put it simply, the lack of access to a sufficient good quality water and clean toilets increases the risk of epidemics because diarrheal diseases, such as cholera, are spread by humans through the bacteria evacuated in people’s stools. This is called fecal-oral transmission.   

The bacteria contaminate water, food and the direct environment, and through this infect new people when ingested (water, food, dirty hands, etc.). It is therefore necessary to have access to toilets and good quality water for drinking, washing hands, food and utensils. All these small actions are essential to break the cycle of contamination and the chain of spread of a disease. Lack of access to clean water, decent sanitation, basic infrastructure, and essential services are therefore all factors that encourages an epidemic explosion.   

Aren’t the earthquakes likely to lead to a further increase in the number of cholera cases, which has reappeared in the country?     

The heavy damage to water and sanitation infrastructures caused by the earthquakes is therefore a real concern and that is why we are talking about it in the media. The cholera epidemic in Syria started in September 2022. According to the latest figures, since the beginning of the epidemic, 50,000 suspected cases have been reached. The epidemic flared up at the end of the year and then slowed down, but since the earthquakes, there has been a significant increase in cases.  These are still epidemiological data. Today, it is difficult to prove that there is a direct link between the earthquakes and this increase. We must therefore remain cautious and avoid hasty conclusions, whether they are reassuring or alarmist. However, we know that there is a lack of resources in north-western Syria to ensure epidemiological monitoring in the region and that the conditions for a resumption of the epidemic are present. Our responsibility is therefore to warn of this risk and to carry out preventive actions to limit it.   

What are you doing to raise awareness of the risk of disease and the spread of epidemics?    

Providing access to clean water and sanitation facilities to people affected by earthquakes is essential but not enough, we need to go further. We therefore organize hygiene promotion sessions, during which we explain to people how to properly use water storage and use facilities, why it is important and necessary to respect certain sanitary rules. Washing hands at key times of the day (before eating, after going to the toilet, after eating), using latrines and not defecating in the open air, etc. are all hygienic behaviors that should be adopted to reduce the risk of spreading many diseases and epidemics. 

© Mohamed Yahya

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