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How the earthquakes could spark progress for disaster risk reduction in Syria

‘Syria is on the agenda again, and that is needed.’

Aerial view of a part of the city of Jenderes in the countryside of Aleppo, northwestern Syria. We see a crane at the bottom center of the picture among piles of rubble. The sky is yellow and clear. Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto
Earthquake survivors in the city of Jindires, in northwest Syria, search between the ruins of their destroyed homes, on 27 February 2023.

The catastrophic earthquakes in Syria and Türkiye exposed the consequences of under-investing in disaster preparedness and prevention. More than 50,000 people are believed to have died in both countries, and recovery will take years and cost billions. 


Advocates for the broad doctrine known as disaster risk reduction (DRR) say it’s crucial to boost investments now, with global emergency aid funding stretched and hazard risks worsened by climate change.


But funding for preventing disasters lags far behind what’s available to respond to them, and this is often magnified in conflicts. In Syria, aid efforts are complicated by a political stalemate and territorial division across four separate zones of control.


Donor red lines against funding reconstruction in Syria have hindered investment in disaster risk reduction and longer-term development programmes, leaving communities less equipped to withstand hazards like the February earthquakes.


Still, there are opportunities for progress in the disaster’s aftermath: Some humanitarians describe a new urgency among donors to put development and early recovery programming on the agenda. And while massive investments in risk reduction in Syria may still be difficult, it is possible to integrate DRR on a smaller scale – taking small but meaningful steps to ensure communities are better prepared to survive the next hazard.


Roadblocks: Political red lines, short-term vision, siloed aid

Disaster risk reduction includes a broad range of measures at all levels – from emergency responders to local and national authorities to aid donors.


For example, these can be policies that mandate safer building codes, planning that prevents the construction of camps in disaster-prone areas, or programmes that help communities build disaster warning systems or emergency evacuation plans. The overarching aim is to reduce damage and loss of life – to prevent hazards like earthquakes from spiralling into full-blown disasters.


“I don’t think we talked once about the possibility of an earthquake.” 


Ideally, DRR programmes and policies would be mandated by central governments, sometimes in collaboration with development agencies like the UN Development Programme (UNDP) or the World Bank, as well as integrated throughout emergency responses.


But analysts and aid workers say Western donor governments’ policies on Syria often bar programmes that necessitate close engagement with authorities and parties to the conflict, making collaboration on DRR particularly difficult. Development agencies, which might traditionally spearhead longer-term disaster risk reduction projects, are also generally not present in opposition-controlled parts of Syria.


This means some donor countries are hesitant to fund early recovery – a humanitarian programming sector that often includes DRR elements as part of development activities – amid sanctions and a wide-reaching war economy. Funding reconstruction, even to build back infrastructure in a safer way, is seen as crossing donor-set red lines by risking engagement with elements of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad or sanctioned armed groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls much of Syria’s northwest. 


“I don’t think we talked once about the possibility of an earthquake” in almost a decade of working in the Syria response, said a humanitarian who asked not to be named in order to speak freely on an issue considered sensitive.


Early recovery was the least funded sector in UN-backed humanitarian responses in Syria in 2022 – receiving only 12.5% coverage, while the overall response plan was half-funded.


Read more: Earthquake funding gap exposes larger fault lines for emergency aid sector


Disaster risk reduction gets little attention in Syria, but this is also mirrored across the aid sector.


“We’ve been talking about the need for more DRR and climate change adaptation for decades,” said Natasha Hall, a senior fellow who specialises in civilian protection at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “But even in non-conflict zones, it’s difficult to pay for prevention.” 


The under-investment is also a result of other long-standing issues that challenge the aid sector: siloed funding and short-term aid cycles.


International donor funding tends to maintain walls between humanitarian and development aid, as well as other forms of support, including peacebuilding, human rights, and stabilisation. In Syria, the majority of funding focuses on humanitarian aid, which encourages short-term interventions that are not typically designed to address larger-scale shocks or even to plan for acute but predictable threats. 


The international aid sector over-emphasises these lines, which deters organisations from approaching humanitarian problems with programming plans that address longer-term risk or offer solutions to structural problems, said Dr. Mahmoud Aswad, executive director of the Syrian NGO Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights.


“The UN isn’t changing its approach [to fit Syria’s complexities],” he said. “Instead, they tell you ‘this isn’t the responsibility of an emergency response; it’s the responsibility of UNDP.’” 


Evolving risks: Climate change and economics

It’s not only conflict that is a threat to civilians in Syria. The risks are shifting, driven also by hazards worsened by climate change, economic turmoil, and aid funding shortfalls that will make tomorrow’s humanitarian budgets even harder to meet.


For example, floods killed at least eight people and caused widespread damage to displacement camps across Syria’s north in mid-March, weeks after the earthquakes struck.


Meanwhile, donor funding is stretched across the globe. This is already drawing resources away from existing programmes, which could widen budget shortfalls and gaps. Syria-watchers and humanitarians say some donors are encouraging NGOs to shift already earmarked funding to cover the earthquake response – depleting existing services in the absence of new money. 


With donor budgets expected to tighten further, the response to the next big crisis could follow a similar blueprint – repurposing existing resources instead of finding new sources. 


Vulnerability to climate change and funding shortages are a global aid problem. And whether it be in Syria, South Sudan, or Afghanistan, shuffling resources and attention from one crisis to the next risks exacerbating humanitarian needs and deepening aid dependency.


Next steps: Donor shifts and better coordination

There are small signs of change amid the earthquake’s widespread destruction.


At the EU’s earthquake pledging conference in March, for example, donors spoke of funding early recovery and resilience in tandem with humanitarian aid – underscoring longer-term support as a priority alongside short-term emergency needs.


It’s a subtle but notable shift, particularly from countries like Germany, which was hesitant to put its name behind early recovery in Syria before the earthquakes but is now highlighting the availability of development funding, including to rehabilitate infrastructure in the northwest.


“One would hope there would be DRR when a crisis or conflict lasts over 15 years.”


The impact of the earthquake was too devastating to ignore, said the humanitarian who formerly worked on the Syria response: “Syria is on the agenda again, and that is needed.”


Funding big infrastructure projects that lessen disaster risks, like rebuilding disaster-resistant schools and hospitals or climate-resilient city planning, may continue to be a big ask in the near term. But DRR can also exist at a smaller scale, fused into humanitarian programming – assessing the structural soundness of schools or the homes of people with disabilities, for instance. 


Donors could support NGOs to build up emergency preparedness to a broader range of threats, including those intensified by climate change. Identifying how small-scale DRR efforts can target the people most at risk following disasters – such as people with disabilities, women, and the elderly – can also reduce impacts.


Integrating small-scale DRR elements into existing emergency programmes can help avoid the inevitable political and logistical hurdles of working in Syria. The focus would be on taking small steps to ensure people are better prepared for disasters – and less at risk once they happen. 


This will never be as effective as a nationally implemented DRR strategy, but it would help address the growing risks that Syrians face in the absence of a coherent governing authority or robust development programmes.


Identifying how the earthquake response can support rather than extract from what already exists is a crucial early step – ensuring that technical expertise brought in for the earthquake response is shared with the existing humanitarian response, for example, or establishing a coordination mechanism to also share best practices and lessons learned. 


The aid community has established risk-focused coordination and information-sharing platforms in other complex environments such as South Sudan; these fundamental steps should also be on the agenda in Syria.


“One would hope there would be DRR when a crisis or conflict lasts over 15 years,” said Hall of CSIS.


Emergency programming “wasn’t meant to last this long”, she continued. “As a result, you have problems like this: crisis on top of crisis.”


This project was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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