Humanitarian action in Syria: What we’ve learned from responding to earthquakes

March 16, 2023

This post is written by Dr. Unni Krishnan, Plan International’s global humanitarian director, who has spent more than 20 years responding to various global crises.  

 The earthquakes and aftershocks that hit Syria and Türkiye have resulted in more than 50,000 deaths. Life will never be the same for survivors. 

I have worked on the front lines, often during the initial hours following monster earthquakes, in India, Nepal, Japan, China, Türkiye and Haiti, amongst other places. While standing shoulder to shoulder with local relief workers in crisis settings, I have picked up tips from local communities, government officials and often children.  

Here are my learnings on how to respond after an earthquake: 

1. Listen to local knowledge.

Local volunteers are always the first responders, sometimes the only responders. They are the true heroes in every earthquake. The role of local communities, especially children and young people, in saving lives during the first few hours and days in an earthquake zone are critical. Local people are often quicker to know which bridges have collapsed and which roads are blocked after natural disasters, rather than satellites and navigation systems. 

A man stands on building rubble wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and dark jeans, while holding a brick-sized piece of the building that has fallen.     
A resident in Aleppo tries to make one of the city’s fallen buildings safer by removing excess rubble. 

2. Children need priority attention.

Children are often the most vulnerable in earthquake settings. Children who have lost their parents, who are separated from family and friends and displaced from their homes, girls, and LGBTQIA+ children are more vulnerable to bullying, abuse and exploitation. Relief efforts must place children, and those who are most vulnerable, like displaced girls, first. 

A photo of a very young child, who is wearing a white hat and ruffled shirt, is among pieces of rubble from a destroyed building in Aleppo, Syria.
A child’s photo amid the rubble of destruction in Aleppo, Syria was found by Plan’s local partner. 

3. Don’t ignore aftershocks. 

They can bring down buildings that have been compromised and can cause many more deaths.  

On Monday, Feb. 20 — just two weeks since the first earthquakes hit — another 6.3 magnitude aftershock struck southern Türkiye near the Syrian border. Families were only beginning to recover and are now in a complete state of shock and panic. Girls need your support now.

4. “Invisible” needs must be addressed.

Search and rescue efforts must be the top priority, along with lifesaving medical assistance, food, clean water and sanitation, and blankets to beat freezing weather conditions in the initial hours and days. However, some requirements are less visible – like mental health needs. Left unattended, psychological issues can leave lasting scars on young minds. It is critical to address the mental health needs of young survivors from day one.  

In addition, earthquakes can cause fractures of the spine, hips, bones and legs. They can result in permanent disabilities. Offering physiotherapy services at the community level can change the life stories of earthquake survivors. 

 5. Correct information saves lives.

The correct information at the appropriate time aids relief efforts. While working in Sendai in Japan (following the monster undersea earthquake and tsunami in 2011), I witnessed a group of students running an information kiosk. Their bulletin board provided information such as where to get heaters and blankets. A lifeline to many. 

6. Quick decisions and good leadership can make or break recovery efforts.

Every moment is a litmus test on leadership in crisis settings. Every moment is also a new beginning to change the course of relief efforts. Speed is a characteristic of quality in crisis response. Governments must listen to survivors when designing relief and recovery plans. 

 7. Treat people with dignity.

An earthquake zone is not the address to send old clothes and medicines past their expiration date. A principled humanitarian approach is about responding to the actual unmet needs of survivors, not about supplying what you have in surplus.

Cash and voucher assistance has emerged as a preferred and more effective mode of relief assistance in most aid settings. Sometimes survivors have simple needs — such as getting replacement eyeglasses when they’ve been destroyed.

A woman wearing a pink sweatshirt, black and white checkered scarf and black zip-up jacket smiles as she picks up a white box, which is her hygiene kit.
A young woman who is staying in a shelter supported by Plan receives a hygiene kit, thanks to your donations, which includes soap, shampoo, toothpaste, menstrual pads, reusable face masks and hand sanitizer.

8. Earthquake preparedness is vital to saving lives. 

A dollar invested in disaster risk reduction and preparedness is priceless when disaster strikes. Governments and donors need to dig deeper into their pockets and invest to build resilient communities. It’s vital to make schools and hospitals in risk areas stronger and safer.

Disadvantaged communities are hit worst by crisis and poverty multiplies suffering. Long term investments that target the root causes of poverty are key to building resilient communities.  

9. Aid workers are human beings first and relief workers second. 

They are often a group that gets the least attention in the midst of impossible deadlines and competing priorities. Providing care and support, safe access and transportation, and ensuring the well-being of caregivers are vital. 

10. Recovery will be a marathon, not a sprint 

Recovery will take time. Thousands of lives have been lost and thousands more are changed irrevocably. 

Plan International is joining with our local partners in Syria to address and respond to the unmet needs of children (especially girls), young women and their families as the true scale of this disaster is revealed.