On Feb. 6, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake occurred in southern Turkey near the northern border of Syria. This quake was followed approximately nine hours later by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake located around 59 miles (95 kilometers) to the southwest. As of Feb. 9, at least 1,206 aftershocks have been reported.
The earthquake was the most devastating to hit earthquake-prone Turkey in more than 20 years and was as strong as one in 1939, the most powerful recorded there.
The initial earthquake was centered near Gaziantep in south-central Turkey, home to thousands of Syrian refugees and the many humanitarian aid organizations also based there. Governments around the world were quick to respond to requests for international assistance, deploying rescue teams and offering aid. The country of Turkey is recognized in English as Türkiye by the United Nations.
Syria’s current complex humanitarian emergency is among the largest humanitarian crises in the world and the earthquake will only exacerbate the situation and vulnerabilities. One obstacle in assessing the death toll and response efforts in Syria is that the government does not control all the northwest, the area hardest hit by the earthquake.
In northwest Syria, 4.1 million people already depend on humanitarian assistance, the majority of whom are women and children. While countries have offered to support Turkey, getting aid to affected Syrians is likely to be more difficult, considering the country is not controlled by one authority. However, support to the most affected areas of Syria will be critical since the existing humanitarian response is largely overstretched with a funding gap of 48% identified for the last quarter of 2022. Limited capacities in northwest Syria, including the lack of equipment and fuel, continue to hamper search and rescue and recovery efforts.
In their Feb. 9 Flash Update, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) listed the following primary needs for northwest Syria: “1) heavy machines for debris removal, 2) cash distribution, 3) tents, isolation sheets and NFIs [non-food items], 4) heating materials, 5) emergency food and bread assistance, 6) water trucking and garbage removals, 7) ambulances and medicines, 8) fuel for hospitals and health centers, 9) rental trucks and vans to transport people, 10) reception centers for IDPs [internally displaced persons] and 11) safe spaces for women and girls.”
(Photo: Members of the Turkish Armed Forces conduct search and rescue efforts after the earthquake, Feb. 7, 2023. (Source: Republic of Türkiye Ministry of National Defence via Twitter)
Earthquakes are among the most devastating natural hazards. Turkey’s two main fault zones make the region one of the most seismically active in the world. Natural hazards only become disasters when they interact with a human society or community, referred to as vulnerability in disaster studies.
In this disaster, vulnerability looks like poorly constructed buildings that do not meet modern earthquake building standards, thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey or displaced people in northwest Syria that live in informal settlements, destruction of infrastructure within Syria after years of war and aerial bombings, an ongoing complex humanitarian emergency in Syria due to conflict, and a cholera outbreak.
For these reasons, the earthquake that has devastated Turkey and Syria cannot be called a “natural disaster.” While natural hazards, such as earthquakes, are inevitable, the impact they have on society is not. Funders can help minimize the impact of this unfolding disaster and additional disasters in Turkey and Syria by advocating for safe building construction, supporting risk communication campaigns, investing over the long-term to ensure full recovery that incorporates risk reduction, and strengthening preparedness and resilience.
3 ways to support survivors of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria
What we’re watching: Weekly disaster update, February 6
- As of the morning of Feb. 10, the earthquake’s death toll stood at 22,375. At least 18,991 people have died in Turkey and at least 3,384 have been killed in Syria. At least 80,768 people in Syria and Turkey were injured, according to authorities.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) said that nearly 23 million people could be impacted. Prior to the earthquake more than 15 million people in Syria were already need of assistance in 2023.
- On Feb. 8, Turkey’s President Erdogan admitted to problems with his government’s initial response amid frustration with the pace of relief. Erdogan declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces for three months.
- Freezing weather conditions are putting survivors at risk and complicating rescue efforts.
- The earthquake response in northwest Syria is impacted by an already underfunded humanitarian crisis, snowy weather and electricity cut in many areas, and road damage disrupting access to the single border crossing from Turkey into Syria authorized by the UN Security Council. A second aid convoy crossed the border from Turkey into northwest Syria on Feb. 10.
- Damage assessments are ongoing, however, at least 6,444 buildings have reportedly collapsed in Turkey. In northwest Syria, more than 2,000 buildings have been completely destroyed and more than 5,100 buildings have been partially destroyed.
- In their Feb. 9 Flash Update, UNOCHA reported that the total number of responders in the region is 115,688 personnel, including 25,893 search and rescue personnel and 6,479 international personnel from other countries.
- More than 30,000 displacements occurred in northwest Syria between Feb. 6 and Feb. 8. Many people living in northwest Syria have already been displaced multiple times in recent years due to the conflict there.
- As of Feb. 8, early reports show that 239 schools have been damaged in the northern and southern Governorates across Syria.
- Schools in the affected Turkish provinces are closed for at least one week and gas flow through pipelines has been stopped in Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep to mitigate explosion risks.
- Several Syrian governorates in north, central and coastal parts of Syria were affected with Aleppo being the most impacted, although Lattakia, Tartous, Hama and Idleb were also considerably affected.
- According to ACAPS, aggravating factors that impact response and recovery efforts include harsh winter weather, fuel shortages, damage to dams, limited roads and connectivity in Syria, and the economic crisis.
Existing humanitarian crisis worsened
In northwest Syria, the hardest hit area of the country, 4.1 million people already depend on humanitarian assistance. UNOCHA estimates at least six million people in Syria have been affected by the earthquake.
The Syrian complex humanitarian emergency is characterized by more than 10 years of ongoing hostilities and their long-term effects, including large-scale internal and cross-border displacement, widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, and significant violations of international humanitarian law.
There are concerns about how the disaster will affect assistance for millions displaced by conflict in a region with broad and significant long-term needs. Due largely to pressure from Russia, the United Nations (UN) Security Council reduced the UN’s access to the northwest from Turkey to one border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, which appears to have suffered heavy earthquake damage. Local sources say that the road conditions to the border-crossing are impaired and therefore the cross-border response is temporarily disrupted. However, a second aid convoy crossed the border from Turkey into northwest Syria on Feb. 10.
The International Rescue Committee’s policy, advocacy and communications director for Middle East and North Africa Mark Kaye said, ”For this area, you have to remember: This population [was] already highly vulnerable. They have a huge amount of people who have already been displaced — sometimes as many as 20 times … Almost the majority of them are women and children, particularly vulnerable to the harsh weather and this earthquake.”
Kaye encouraged offers of assistance and any other commitments to include Syria in addition to Turkey.
Damage assessments are ongoing, however, at least 6,444 buildings have reportedly collapsed in Turkey. In northwest Syria, more than 2,000 buildings have been completely destroyed and more than 5,100 buildings have been partially destroyed. Local authorities in northwest Syria report that over 11,000 families there are now homeless.
By Feb. 8, Turkey’s emergency management agency, AFAD, had set up more than 70,000 tents as emergency shelter for the more than 380,000 people who have been temporarily displaced by the earthquake.
In their Feb. 9 Flash Update, UNOCHA reported that AFAD, the Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Services and the Red Crescent dispatched 137,929 tents and 1,255,500 blankets to 10 provinces heavily affected by the earthquake.
While assessments are ongoing and a full picture of the earthquake’s damage to housing and community infrastructure in the two countries will take time to develop, significant damage to the housing stock is very likely.
Snow and near-freezing conditions pose serious health risks to people in earthquake-affected areas. The forecast for Gaziantep, the city closest to the quake’s epicenter, is a high of about 39 degrees Fahrenheit, with snow coming and a significant wind chill factor at play.
Speaking on CNN, meteorologist Karen Maginnis described the risks of the winter storm: “Hundreds of thousands of people are impacted by this. It is cold. It is rainy. Roads could be impacted, that means your food, your livelihood, the care for your children, the care for your family.”
As with most disasters and emergencies, cash donations are recommended by disaster experts as they allow for on-the-ground agencies to direct funds to the most significant area of need, support economic recovery and ensure donation management does not detract from disaster recovery needs and quickly re-establishing access to basic needs.
UNOCHA has already identified cash assistance as a primary need following the earthquake.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy recommends cash both as a donation method and a recovery strategy. Direct cash assistance can allow families to purchase items and services that address their multiple needs. It gives each family flexibility and choice, ensuring that support is relevant and timely. Cash-based approaches to disaster recovery also give people the freedom to choose how they rebuild their lives and provide a pathway to economic empowerment.
Striking without warning, earthquakes often are among the most devastating natural hazards. The aftermath of an earthquake can bring immediate and long-term health impacts, especially in lower-middle-income countries. This is especially concerning in the context of Syria where a cholera outbreak was spreading before the earthquake.
Many hospitals in northwestern Syria were left non-operational due to damage from the earthquake, and patients were stranded. Hospital staff in northwest Syria reported that they were already in need of critical medical supplies like operating tables and bandages. What is needed now is more sophisticated equipment.
According to UNOCHA, “Approximately 925,000 women of reproductive age among them an estimated 148,000 women are currently pregnant and 37,000 are expected to deliver over the next three months.”
CDP’s NGO partners have reported that an immediate significant need in northwest Syria is access to clean water. Damage assessments to water boreholes are ongoing as well as conducting assessments on water quality. Given the existing cholera outbreak and damage to already fragile water infrastructure, there concerns about a possible spike in waterborne diseases.
In their Feb. 9 Flash Update, UNOCHA stated the following regarding health needs in northwest Syria: “The Health Cluster report that urgent medical needs in hospitals include serums, gauze bandages, painkillers, medical plaster and blood bags. Other urgent needs include fuel for generators and heating as well as burial bags. At least 20 hospitals have registered a request for blood units and at least two hospitals are out of service in the Idleb governorate.”
Mental health and psychosocial support
The earthquake affected people already displaced and will result in new displacements, which are a significant change in people’s way of life, perhaps including loss of livelihood, extreme poverty and damaged social support structure. Because of the ongoing conflict, displaced Syrians also may have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Providing support for psychosocial and mental health support is critical.
After a disaster, protecting vulnerable individuals and ensuring access to their fundamental rights are immediate priorities.
Gender-based violence, including sexual assault and trafficking of vulnerable individuals, is often a priority concern.
Psychological stress is high in such contexts. In northwest Syria, where 97% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, women report domestic violence as a major concern.
Homelessness and onward movement can create or exacerbate protection risks. The protection and security of children are also major concerns.
Safe spaces for women and girls in the earthquake-affected area can provide protection. CDP’s NGO partners have shared they are assessing the structural integrity of existing safe spaces and additional spaces may be needed relevant to the disaster’s scale.
The expected significant damage to community infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, religious facilities and housing in Turkey and Syria will require immediate and long-term assistance.
In the short term, affected people will need access to safe, warm shelters. All emergency shelters should be winterized and built with disaster risk in mind.
In the longer-term, housing reconstruction will be required. The sooner the transition from emergency shelter to permanent housing solutions occurs, the better for communities and the quicker their recovery.
On Feb. 10, Turkish President Erdogan said that Turkey’s government will pay citizens’ rent for one year if they do not wish to stay in tents.
Although local and national governments are responsible for building codes and ensuring they are enforced, philanthropy can support efforts to reduce vulnerability in the built environment through research, advocacy and safe reconstruction.
The earthquake occurred during winter which puts the population at risk due to the damage to housing, heating and health infrastructure. In addition to shelter, the provision of warm clothes and blankets, heating equipment, clean water, and access to safe sanitation will also be required to meet immediate needs and also prevent further humanitarian impacts.
CDP has a Turkey & Syria Earthquake Recovery Fund that supports earthquake-affected families and communities as they work to rebuild and recover.
(Photo: The Turkish Army supports search and rescue efforts in Turkey after the earthquake, Feb. 6, 2023. Source: Republic of Türkiye Ministry of National Defence; via Twitter)
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Philanthropic and government support
On Feb. 16, CDP will host a webinar, “A layered disaster: Supporting long-term recovery in Turkey and Syria.” Webinar speakers will share the latest information, including critical needs and gaps, and provide concrete takeaways for funders to effectively support relief and recovery efforts now underway.
The Council on Foundations published a list of resources to guide the philanthropic response to the Turkey and Syria Earthquake.
António Guterres, secretary general of the UN, told the General Assembly that the UN is mobilizing to support the emergency response. Guterres added that the UN’s humanitarian aid and relief agency is already overstretched, with need outpacing resources because of crises and conflicts such as the war in Ukraine.
A $25 million grant was released by the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund on Feb. 7 to help “kick-start” the earthquake response. A Whole-of-Syria Flash Appeal will be published in the coming days to lay out gaps, needs and financial requirements for three months until May 10.
The UN’s Connecting Business initiative Network in Turkey is actively involved in the response. The network is mobilizing its regional federations to support efforts on the ground. A Business Guide to the Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria will be released in the coming days.
On Feb. 7, AFAD, Turkey’s emergency management agency said it had distributed thousands of blankets, tents, beds, kitchen sets and heaters. Governments around the world were quick to respond to requests for international assistance, deploying rescue teams and offering aid.
U.S. President Joe Biden “authorized an immediate U.S. response” in the aftermath of the earthquake. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged $85 million for shelter, cold weather supplies, food, water and healthcare. Samantha Power, the USAID director, has deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team.
On Feb. 9, the World Bank announced $1.78 billion in assistance to help with Turkey’s relief and recovery efforts. Immediate assistance totaling $780 million will be provided and an additional $1 billion in operations is also being prepared.
More ways to help
CDP has also created a list of suggestions for foundations to consider related to disaster giving. These include:
- Prioritize investments in local organizations: Local humanitarian leaders and organizations play a vital role in providing immediate relief and setting the course for long-term equitable recovery in communities after a disaster or crisis. However, these leaders and organizations are mostly under-resourced and underfunded. Grant to locally-led entities as much as possible. When granting to trusted international partners with deep roots in targeted countries, more consideration should be given to those that empower local and national stakeholders.
- Take the long view: Even while focusing on immediate needs, remember that it will take some time for the full range of needs to emerge. Be patient in planning for disaster funding. Recovery will take a long time and while recovery efforts can begin immediately, funding will be needed throughout.
- All funders are disaster philanthropists: Even if your organization does not work in a particular geographic area or fund immediate relief efforts, you can look for ways to tie disaster funding into your existing mission. If you focus on education, health, children or vulnerable populations, disasters present prime opportunities for funding these target populations or thematic areas.
- Ask the experts: If you are considering supporting an organization that is positioned to work in an affected area, do some research. CDP and InterAction can provide resources and guidance about organizations working in affected communities.
Striking without warning, earthquakes often are among the most devastating disasters. Caused by the movement of plates along fault lines on the earth’s surface, earthquakes often leave a monumental path of instant death and destruction.
Complex Humanitarian Emergencies
CHEs involve an acute emergency layered over ongoing instability. Multiple scenarios can cause CHEs, like the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the man-made political crisis in Venezuela, or the public health crisis in Congo.
Disasters affect millions of people and cause billions of dollars in damage globally each year. To help understand and manage disasters, practitioners, academics and government agencies frame disasters in phases.