Survivors of Monday’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria could face “a secondary disaster” as cold and snow lead to “worsening and horrific conditions,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) said Thursday.
Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, WHO incident response manager Robert Holden warned there were “a lot of people” surviving “out in the open, in worsening and horrific conditions.”
“We’ve got major disruptions to basic water supplies, we’ve got major disruption to fuel, electricity supplies, communication supplies, the basics of life,” Holden said.
“We are in real danger of seeing a secondary disaster which may cause harm to more people than the initial disaster if we don’t move with the same pace and intensity as we are doing on the search and rescue side,” Holden added.
The scale of the challenge is amplified by the fact that affected areas in both Turkey and Syria are facing colder than normal temperatures. For example, the Syrian city of Aleppo is forecast to have lows of -3°C to -2°C (27°F to 28°F) through this weekend, whereas February lows are normally 2.5°C (36°F).
And years of conflict and an acute humanitarian crisis mean that there are extra difficulties in helping survivors in Syria, where international aid has been slow to arrive. It took until Thursday for the first United Nations aid convoy to cross from Turkey into northwest Syria.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) said Thursday’s convoy, made up of six trucks carrying shelter items and Non Food Items (NFI), crossed through the Bab al-Hawa crossing – the only humanitarian aid corridor between Turkey and Syria.
“The UN cross-border aid operation has been reinstated today. We are relieved that we are able to reach the people in northwest Syria in this pressing time. We hope that this operation continues as this is a humanitarian lifeline and the only scalable channel,” Sanjana Quazi, head of OCHA Türkiye said.
The delivery on Thursday ends a three-day period during which no aid arrived at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey to rebel-held areas of northern Syria – just 300 bodies, according to the administration that controls the only access point between the two countries.
“How are roads okay for cars carrying bodies, but not for aid?” Mazen Alloush, Bab al-Hawa’s frustrated spokesperson had asked CNN.
Immediately after the quake, the United Nations said roads to the crossing were blocked, but as of Wednesday they were clear, raising questions as to why it was taking so long for help to arrive.
A top aid official told CNN earlier that efforts to help people in quake-stricken regions of Syria have been “incredibly difficult,” because passage entries along the border were destroyed due to the disaster.
“On top of that, in Syria, this happens in the middle of a conflict zone,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The situation in Syria is starkly different to Turkey, where dozens of countries and international organizations have offered teams of rescuers, donations and aid.
The delivery of urgent supplies to quake-hit areas of northern Syria has been complicated by a long-running civil war between opposition forces and the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, who is accused of killing his own people.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad says any aid it receives must go through the capital Damascus. “The Syrian state is ready to allow aid to enter into all regions, provided that it does not reach terrorist armed groups,” he said.
That leaves rebel-held areas reliant on aid groups including the UN.
Millions living in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria were already suffering from the effects of extreme poverty and a cholera outbreak when the quake hit. Now many are fending for themselves.
Abu Muhammad Sakhour, a former merchant, is volunteering as a nurse in the rebel-held city of Idlib, dressing wounds for quake victims and checking up on the injured who have been discharged from crowded hospitals.
“The situation is catastrophic in every sense of the word,” he said. “We are now healing our own wounds.”
Single border crossing into Syria
At the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, protesters held signs asking why only bodies were being allowed through. The bodies belong to Syrian refugees who sought safety in Turkey and are now being sent back to be buried on home soil.
Muhammad Monther Etaky, from the Independent Doctor’s Association, is living out of his car with his family in Gaziantep, Turkey, but is in close contact with colleagues in Syria. He said hospitals there have been overwhelmed with bodies, and staff are waiting for families to come and identify them, so they can be taken away.
But survivors are facing their own challenges each day as water supplies dwindle and disease threatens to spread. Moutaz Adham, Oxfam’s country director for Syria, said residents are struggling to find food – even bread is hard to come by because so many bakeries collapsed in the quake.
“Syrians don’t know where their next meal comes from. When we say meal, it’s not about vegetables, not about meat… it’s about simple bread,” he said.
There has been “no investment” in the isolated region for over a decade, said Kieran Barnes, Syria Country Director for the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. Tens of thousands of people are living in temporary shelters with no access to water, he said.
“We work in 98 camps to provide water, because there are no water networks. We deliver the water directly to the people,” he said.
Sherwan Qasem, spokesperson with Doctors without Borders, said access to the area had been limited by restrictions on the cross-border mechanism agreed by the UN Security Council resolution in 2014 to allow aid to cross four places on the Turkey-Syria border.
Since 2021, Russia and China have used their veto power to reduce the number of crossings from four to just one – Bab al-Hawa. In January, less than one month before the quake, the UNSC unanimously voted to keep it open, a vote reluctantly backed by China and Russia, whose ambassador said it enabled aid to flow to a Syrian enclave “inundated with terrorists.”