After more than a decade of war, earthquakes are a catastrophe on top of a crisis for millions of people in Syria

Baby Huda, pictured here with her aunt, was born in Lattakia, Syria, a day before the earthquakes. “Our house collapsed,” said her mother, Nuha. Mother and child are being sheltered at a converted school and received medical treatment for wounds from a UNFPA-supported mobile health team. © UNFPA Syria/Dana Mousa
  • 20 February 2023

LATTAKIA, Syria – Nuha gave birth to baby Huda on 5 February in Lattakia, in western Syria. The young mother remembers feeling so much hope, so much promise, for her daughter.

But Huda has yet to sleep a full night in the bedroom her mother had so carefully prepared for her. At four o'clock the following morning, everything fell apart. Walls shook, ceilings caved in. Terrifying sounds were coming from all directions. Lattakia is one of the areas in Syria hardest hit by two violent earthquakes last week, with some 1.3 million people affected and tens of thousands displaced.

Most of the buildings turned to rubble almost instantly – among them Nuha’s. “Our house just collapsed,” she said. Running from her home, bleeding profusely and clinging to her day-old daughter, she made her way to a shelter hastily set up in a school. It was crowded, injured people were everywhere. She searched the room for help, but found only chaos.

At just 20 years old, Nuha has lived more than half her life embroiled in the protracted crisis in Syria: From a brutal, drawn-out civil war to climate shocks and now the region’s worst natural disaster in recent memory. The earthquake affected at least 8.8 million people in Syria, killing more than 5,700 and injuring over 10,000. These grim numbers are only expected to mount as the days and weeks go by and the chances of finding survivors dwindle.

A catastrophe on a crisis

Amid this catastrophe, UNFPA estimates there are more than 130,000 pregnant women in Syria, around 14,800 of whom will deliver in the next month. Some 6,600 women will have pregnancy and childbirth-related complications over the next three months and need access to emergency, potentially life-saving health care that for now is almost totally lacking.

As winter temperatures plummet, UNFPA teams and partners in Aleppo, Hama and Lattakia are providing winter clothes, blankets, maternity kits and dignity kits. Deliveries of reproductive health kits, including supplies and equipment to manage obstetric emergencies, have arrived in Aleppo, where more than 30 mobile teams are also bringing reproductive health and gender-based violence response services to displaced people. The teams include a gynaecologist, midwife and psychosocial support worker.

One of the teams treated Nuha’s wounds and checked her new daughter’s health at the shelter, giving her a maternal health kit with the essentials she and Huda would need in the coming weeks, from a blanket and clothes to soap and diapers.

For Huda, as for so many children in this catastrophe, the start of her life has been a traumatic one: Survivors are in acute need of psychological support, with children, women and the elderly particularly vulnerable to severe shock and panic. UNFPA is supporting the launch of a helpline for women experiencing violence, with referrals to psychological and medical support as people struggle to come to terms with the tragic effects of the earthquake on their lives and their communities.

Soaring needs and dwindling resources

The huge number of casualties is overwhelming hospitals that have limited medical and surgical capacities and scarce access to intensive care units. For those facilities not destroyed by the earthquake, major power outages have led to fuel shortages and forced many to suspend their services.

In northwest Syria, which already had more than 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance before the earthquake, UNFPA was part of the first cross-border convoy since the crisis to arrive with much needed relief items. Working with partners on the ground, thousands of  dignity kits are being distributed and reproductive health kits will be provided to meet the needs of some 150,000 people.

A worker hands out UNFPA dignity kits.
UNFPA and partner, the Syrian Family Planning Association, distribute dignity kits across two shelters in Lattakia for thousands of women and girls displaced by two devastating earthquakes. © UNFPA Syria

The supplies can assist more than 800 Caesarean sections and more than 30,000 normal deliveries, while nine health facilities are being supported to provide essential sexual and reproductive health services. In addition, 12 safe spaces for women and girls continue to ensure access to critical gender-based violence prevention and response support.

The chronic shortage of supplies in hospitals across Syria –  especially the northwest – even before this latest crisis means that those who survived the earthquake but are injured risk not getting the treatment they urgently need. Hospitals are drastically under-supplied and overcrowded, many are damaged or destroyed, and fuel and medicine are desperately lacking.

The full scale of the damage and of the crisis is still unfolding. Already reeling from almost 12 years of war, the earthquake hit at a time when humanitarian needs in Syria are at their highest since the conflict began. UNFPA is urgently appealing for $24.8 million in fast, flexible and sustained funding to deliver assistance to millions of people in dire need in Syria.

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