In the early hours of Monday, the 6th of February this year, the first of several earthquakes struck near the Türkiye-Syria border. The force of the earthquakes devastated communities on both sides. For northwest Syria, they compounded an already protracted and dire situation in the wake of years of conflict and instability.
According to the United Nations, February’s earthquakes killed tens of thousands of people and injured many more. They destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings, including schools and hospitals.
Australia Assists Program deployees Tim, Karen and Farah were already in the region, responding to humanitarian needs in Syria and surrounding countries. The Australia Assists Program, implemented by RedR Australia, is the Australian Government’s humanitarian civilian deployment program, and forms part of the Australian Government’s support for humanitarian action, peace and stability in the middle east.
Tim, Karen and Farah were providing technical assistance to UN agencies in the areas of coordination, water and sanitation and sexual and reproductive health. When the Türkiye -Syria earthquakes struck, they, along with the organisations they were supporting, pivoted to provide emergency aid to communities impacted by the disaster.
Tim had been deployed to UNICEF’s regional office in Amman, Jordan, as Cholera WASH Coordinator. His role was to assist in combatting a cholera outbreak in Syria, exacerbated by the country’s protracted crisis. Tim created a cholera reporting system to improve the program’s monitoring and efficiency, reviewed response plans, and developed a longer-term prevention and response strategy. He also honed specific standards and tools to combat cholera outbreaks.
Once the earthquakes struck, however, Tim pivoted to support the earthquake response, travelling to Damascus and working to assist teams in northwest Syria. The earthquakes’ destruction of buildings and homes not only increased the number of internally displaced people in Syria, but it also destroyed water and sanitation facilities. The quality and quantity of water available to Syrian families fell, leading to a heighted risk of cholera and other communicable diseases.
“Prior to the war,’ he says, “Syria was known as having the best sanitation engineers and water engineers, they were top notch. Their networked systems were some of the best in the region. So, it's not like there's a lack of knowledge or infrastructure, and everyone had piped water, typically into people's houses.”
Local expertise and high-quality infrastructure have meant that the Cholera response needed to be adapted for this setting. Tim applied his experience to help tailor UNICEF’s plans to the specific needs of the Syrian community.
Humanitarian work in Syria poses particular challenges, as different regions are overseen by different political factions, making access challenging. This is one reason why humanitarian aid and programming are often coordinated outside of the country, in Amman. Even before the cholera outbreak, Syria represented a huge and complex crisis, including around their drinking water.
“Syria’s such a complex crisis”, Tim explains. “There’s water scarcity, and there's political aspects around where the water is. There's one area where the water has to cross a border to service an area in the Northwest. So, the water is pumped in government-controlled areas, and then piped across the frontlines into northwest Syria. But the water can get cut off, and then there's a negotiation between parties to get it flowing again” he continued.
“So, there's all these challenges that the WASH cluster coordinator, and people at all levels working on Syria, are trying to work out, then having Cholera on top where you’ve suddenly got this very acute crisis requiring additional response work…That's the gap that I filled.”
Supporting women in crisis
Australia Assists Program deployee Karen, was working as the Sexual and Reproductive Health Coordinator with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) when the earthquakes hit. She supported the development, implementation and monitoring of the sexual and reproductive health and rights component of the UNFPA program in Syria, both in-country and remotely. Her work included improving access to quality care and gender-based violence interventions in affected communities.
The earthquakes immediately changed the needs of the Syrian community, and therefore, altered the role Karen was asked to perform. People affected by crisis and lacking shelter can become highly vulnerable to gender-based violence, and menstruating, pregnant and lactating women also need specific humanitarian supplies. Karen led the earthquake response for UNFPA, and, like Tim, she also took on cholera as part of her work. In addition to taking charge of UNFPA’s crisis response, Karen led the cholera inputs focusing on pregnancy.
Stepping up to a demanding role, Karen coordinated with other agencies, and led information sharing and fundraising. Coordination and funding are always crucial in humanitarian crises, especially where information is lacking. Karen developed a Flash Appeal to raise funds and wrote situation reports for the health sector, UNFPA, and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Karen kept both country office and headquarters colleagues updated, briefed incoming surge support staff, led coordination calls and supported communications work. Although the scale and scope of this work was outside her original deployment, Karen and all humanitarian responders know how to adapt quickly to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
Australia Assists Program deployee Karen led UNFPA’s earthquake response.
The importance of coordination
The change in demands on Karen and increase in responsibility demonstrate the importance of utilising people who are on the ground, who can demonstrate vital local experience. Complementing local first responders, they are able to mobilise quickly, while other experts may take time to deploy and network.
Coordination in particular is a crucial role in crisis. In the immediate period after a disaster, there is chaos, confusion and remaining risks to be assessed. The role of tracking who is doing what where, and sharing information, means that efforts are not duplicated, and all communities are reached.
Coordination in emergencies is a vital responsibility, and Karen was not the only Australia Assists Program deployee to perform this important function in the earthquake response. Farah was originally deployed to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer, also based in the regional hub of Amman, Jordan.
Her original role was to work with the OCHA Regional Office on the Humanitarian response to Syria, coordinating the UN’s ongoing collective efforts. This meant producing the 2023 Humanitarian Needs Overview and Response Plans, key documents which help response agencies and donors to understand what people in crisis need, so that aid is more effective.
When the earthquakes exacerbated humanitarian need, Farah’s role shifted to supporting the production of the Earthquake appeal for Syria and revising the Humanitarian Response Plan to include the evolving disaster. From Amman, Farah communicated directly with colleagues close to the communities in Syria creating an up to date understanding of the needs of the Syrian people to get more and effective funding.
“My deployment definitely enhanced the OCHA team’s coordination capacity as I was the focal point for many workstreams in direct communication with coordinators and agencies working on the Syria response,” said Farah. Her work helped to raise funds, avoid duplication, and to harmonise the actions of groups responding to the Syrian community in crisis.
Sudden onset disasters usually come with little warning, however highly skilled and experienced humanitarian deployees like Tim, Karen and Farah understand the need to be agile in a crisis and are thankfully prepared to respond.