13 February 2023 - Syria

Time is running out - but frontline NGOs can avert a second catastrophe in earthquake-hit Syria

Ward, 6, stands in the rubble near his home that collapsed in the earthquake

Ward*, 6, stands in the rubble near his home that collapsed in the earthquake. Khalil Ashawi/Save the Children

Time is running out. 

It’s now been a week since two massive earthquakes over 7.6 in magnitude hit southern Türkiye and north-western Syria. The death toll – now at more than 25,000 - is continuing to climb, and international aid is only just starting to trickle into the areas that need it most. The people of Syria have experienced it all. They’ve been bombed. They’ve been forcibly displaced. They’ve borne the brunt of a conflict that has destroyed countless lives and livelihoods. And now this.

Yesterday, one of Save the Children’s partners in Syria told my colleague:

“In 2013, a bomb fell into my house. My father died and was buried under the rubble…but this earthquake was even scarier. I can’t describe how long it lasted because of the pain, fear, anger that I felt. I saw my entire life flash in front of me and I was frozen with fear. I looked at my wife and children while the building was shaking, and I felt so helpless.” 

This heart wrenching testimony illustrates the horror that the people of Syria are experiencing today. This comes on top of the past 12 years that have been a nightmare from which the people of Syria have been unable to wake up. 

Time and time again, it is the survivors of these horrors - many of whom are frontline aid workers themselves - who are the first to respond. Over the past week, we’ve all seen the images of survivors in Syria and Türkiye pulling fellow neighbours out of the rubble. Siblings protecting one another until help arrives. Local rescue workers clearing the rubble with their hands or any equipment they can find in the hope of finding life underneath. People using dilapidated pick-up trucks to move aid and essential supplies to families in need.  

So much of the work comes down to people in the communities affected by crises and local organisations that are present where global organisations are normally not. They are the ones who will always stay and deliver, long after the media headlines move on.  

We’ve already seen how the local communities have rallied together to help those in need. One man told our local partner in Idlib that his wife was willing to breastfeed any baby who lost their mother. Another offered to host families in his two houses that were not destroyed. Others offered tools and machinery to dig into the rubble. Some people handed out food in the streets and there was a rush to donate when hospitals asked for blood.  

These earthquakes are the biggest natural disaster to hit this region in decades, and it is turning into one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent years, creating needs on an unprecedented scale. Only 5% of the impacted sites and towns in opposition-controlled areas of north-western Syria are being covered by search-and-rescue operations, according to the UN, but efforts continue in all affected areas of Syria. Buildings that withstood incessant bombardment over the worst years of the conflict have now completely collapsed.  

This tells us how urgent it is to get funds and support into the hands of those able to deliver aid the quickest. In a race against time, the humanitarian imperative to save lives necessitates us to do everything in our power to get funds and resources to frontline, local groups and organisations who are saving lives. This funding needs to happen quickly, it should be as direct as possible, and it should be sustained over time so communities can eventually rebuild and recover. 

Iyad*, 15 (right) with his family in the car where they are now living

Iyad*, 15 (right) with his family in the car where they are now living.

Search and rescue operations must scale up before the window of opportunity to find people alive closes. But a second wave of crisis, which could lead to even more death and destruction, is looming. This year was already on track to see the highest rates of hunger across Syria since the start of the conflict. Add to this a lack of shelter, access to clean water, and destroyed sanitation and you have a breeding ground for water borne diseases like cholera, which was already a serious issue in Syria last year. Now it is more important than ever to support those who are there to stay.  

Aid efforts have already been hampered by continued aftershocks, dire weather conditions, damage to roads and airports, and the disruption of local markets. But we cannot allow aid efforts to be hampered by political agendas as well. The humanitarian impact of this disaster is catastrophic and the window of opportunity to save lives is rapidly closing.

Now is the time for governments to facilitate every modality possible to get aid to those who can deliver it. In all affected areas of Syria, crossing points must be fully opened to allow the passage of supplies and rescue equipment to those in need. Exemptions to get humanitarian funds into areas impacted by sanctions must be facilitated. And, most importantly, and the direct funding of those local organisations in Syria and Türkiye that are - and have always been - leading on the frontline must be of utmost priority.  

The future of an estimated 7 million children affected in Syria and Türkiye hangs in the balance. It's up to us to make it right. 

By donating to our Children’s Emergency Fund, you can help protect children’s lives and futures at this devastating time.

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