Responding to Catastrophic Türkiye-Syria Earthquake

This earthquake disaster could not have been worse. It has been catastrophic. Catastrophic does not even encompass everything that has happened in Türkiye and northern Syria. It is heartbreaking that after 12 years of war and after the economic catastrophe that Türkiye itself has faced for the last two years we have to experience this absolute collapse of everything. It is truly heartbreaking.

I barely slept last night and I am not even in the disaster zone. I am in Amman, Jordan. Honestly, my heart breaks for this situation. We had many of our staff sleeping in their cars last night with barely one or two hours of sleep, sleeping together with their families and desperately trying to figure out what to do next.

We have been going through a multitude of shocks. First, a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake hit at 4 o’clock in the morning and we heard harrowing accounts from our own team of staff having to decide which of their children to hold and run down the stairs with and which to leave behind.

The tremor lasted from a minute and a half to 2 minutes and it was extremely scary for everyone in the region. Even here in Jordan, we felt the shocks. They were also felt in Lebanon, Cyprus and Greece.

Then a second huge earthquake struck at 1 pm local time. That was a bit further away but still in the same region. The quakes are essentially happening along the fault line. It’s more than an earthquake epicentre, it’s more like an ‘epi-line’ right across the spine of southern Türkiye. This line of disaster means that the devastation is quite far stretched.

Fortunately, it’s happened in the heart of World Vision’s ongoing Syria response area and where we have been addressing the needs of people in northern Syria and Türkiye who have already gone through an extremely hard situation for the last few years.

The city of Gaziantep in Türkiye is the centre of the cross-border Syria response work for many INGOs, many of whose offices have been severely damaged. World Vision’s office just east of the city in Sanliurfa is basically okay but Gaziantep has been badly, badly damaged.

Those who are living in Gaziantep are desperately trying to find a place to sleep that isn’t their building because of the fear of after-shocks. There are massive shortages of water, shortages of gas, the city’s airport is closed, and the province of Hatay, home to the Biblical city of Antioch, is also extremely badly damaged.

Fortunately, the border crossing into northern Syria - which humanitarian agencies use to ship aid into the opposition-controlled areas of Syria- is still open but badly damaged. So, goods can still come out and into Northwest Syria.

Northwest Syria has been the major focus of years of humanitarian response work. The city of Idlib is really badly damaged, probably the most damaged area in the northwest. Unfortunately, all the areas in which World Vision operates in north Syria are badly impacted.

Hundreds of people have died in both Syrian government-controlled and Northwest Syrian opposition-controlled areas of Syria but we know this figure is going to rise. 

Unfortunately, Northwest Syria does not have the same government structures and systems in place that Türkiye has so we know the ability to search and rescue people is severely hampered and the work is really harrowing.

Non-governmental organisations are basically trying to get diggers to rescue people but this is not enough. Things are hard and we fully expect the death toll figures to increase. Many people have fled buildings and are now staying in informal tented settlements for refugees, living with family and friends. Households that were already under stress before the quake are now being forced to host people who are once seen as being a bit more privileged.

I think the death toll in Türkiye is also going to go up fairly dramatically. This is the worst earthquake in Türkiye in more than 100 years and the death toll then was over 30,000 people. We expect the worst but, of course, hope for the best. There are tens of thousands who are injured and missing and trying to get information on people is extremely difficult. More than 5,700 buildings have collapsed according to Türkiye’s disaster management agency but again we expect this number to increase.

More and more data are coming out from Türkiye and Northwest Syria, of buildings that have been destroyed. There are still hundreds of people who are trapped and given the lack of ability for rescue teams to go into Northwest Syria, that number might go up. There are rescue teams deploying in from around the world to Türkiye but they are unlikely to get into Northwest Syria because of the sanctions.

From the early hours after the quake struck, we were trying to get hold of our staff to check that they were safe. Literally from the moment the quake struck at 4 am we were checking to make sure that everyone was okay. Our team in Northwest Syria did a rapid assessment of our staff to make sure that they were okay. We did the same for our staff in Türkiye.

We have 48 staff in Northwest Syria and over 200 volunteers. We have one teacher who works in one of our schools, who unfortunately passed away. She was deployed to the Syria response by the education directorate. Given the close relationship our team had with her, we really considered her part of the family so her loss is a big one for us. Unfortunately, her husband and their six children also passed away.

At the moment we are doing a rapid needs assessment, coordinating with other international humanitarian organisations. I’m really proud of the work that they are doing to coordinate with each other to ensure that we are not replicating work, both in Türkiye and Northwest Syria.

We have already begun moving heaters from some of our schools – where classes are suspended – as well as supplying oil and fuel to ensure that those people surviving in collective shelters have heat. The biggest need right now is fuel to provide warmth. Warmth is a massive need and providing it in spaces where people feel safe, as well as providing fuel and anything else to keep people warm and healthy.

The major concerns at the moment are displaced people sleeping wherever they can. People are building fires in oil drums, sleeping outside, sleeping on chairs and in cars, trying to find anywhere that is warm, anywhere except in a building that has the potential to collapse. Buildings and homes remain unstable.

The education directorate in Northwest Syria has suspended education until at least the end of the week. We are going to see if we can turn some of these places, once safe, into children-friendly play spaces.

A lot of infrastructure has been damaged. Many of the wells where people collected water have been polluted, so we are looking at trucking in water. There are also a lot of protection risks for children and we are looking at what we can do to keep them safe.

The Turkish government has pledged to keep open the border crossing to Northwest Syria and will be using that to stay in touch with our Syria staff. However, the main highway to that border crossing remains damaged.

Another major concern is funding. The Syria crisis response was already heavily underfunded which meant the earlier closure of hospitals, primary health care centres and schools. This earthquake could not have come at a worse time.

However, a large response is now underway and we’re doing whatever we can. We have connected with our partners on the ground in Northwest Syria and many of these partners have significant ability to take on funding and reach the hardest-to-reach places, especially in Northwest Syria but also in Türkiye.

We have already dispersed US$800,000 which has allowed us to immediately step up and commit funding to several major partners across the response, both in Northwest Syria and Türkiye. There was no delay in getting resources to the people who most need it. We work with expert partners. We trust them, we know them, and we have long-established relations with them. We hope that the funding we have committed is just the beginning.

Major needs at the moment remain shelter and non-food items. We are working with our partners to ensure we can get the supplies to those who need them. The other extremely important thing is healthcare and supporting the health facilities that are treating the injured. These facilities are all prioritised by the World Health Organization. There are seven of them and we hope to increase our support to up to 11 in the next few days.

We are also responding in government-controlled areas of Syria through the Middle East Council of Churches particularly looking to provide shelter and non-food procurements for Aleppo which was severely damaged. We are also responding with a Turkish Red Crescent in Southern Türkiye and hope to scale that up.

We are starting as World Vision both with direct implementation in the disaster zone by providing heat and fuel, and with our partners, wasting no time in getting them the funding that they need to scale operations.

We need to raise millions and we have the pipeline to be able to disperse the assistance it buys rapidly to those who need it.

We have had partners who continue to reach out to us. There are several local Syrian organisations that do excellent work in Türkiye and Syria that still need funding.

World Vision is currently rapidly assessing the needs of survivors and we’ll have the results in the next few days. Our operations team is doing an incredible job. Many of our staff have been impacted by the crisis. We gave the option to work or to care for their families and most of them said, ‘We want to help. What can we do?’ and they are now assessing needs. This shows to me the incredible people we have working for us.

We mustn’t forget the many current programmes we have in place already responding to the Syrian conflict. These are extremely important and must continue in spite of the quake damage. We are now deploying some of our field operations team from Jordan into Syria and Türkiye to support the teams there. We are building a response plan that will outline where and to whom we will target our assistance and what it will be. Every dollar we have received in the last 24 hours has already been programmed. We are very much in a position to take on more. 

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Written By: 
Clynton Beukes, Programmes Director for World Vision's Syria Response and is now also focused on the Türkiye-Syria earthquake response