Key considerations for the response to the Türkiye & Syria earthquake

If you’re delivering the response in Türkiye and Syria, what are the most relevant lessons from previous responses that are useful for you? What do you need to think about when providing cash and voucher assistance in this context? Why is environmental sustainability important when rebuilding infrastructure following this and other disasters? And what new learnings might arise from the current crisis around programming in a protracted refugee crisis and the application of humanitarian principles? 

We spoke with Helene Juillard, lead author of ALNAP’s 2018 lessons synthesis on earthquakes, about key takeaways for responders in Türkiye and Syria, and asked Jen Doherty, research lead on the ALNAP lessons papers, for her thoughts on learning priorities for the current response.

Helene, national and international actors are working hard to respond as quickly as they can, knowing that these early stages are so critical. Of the 16 lessons identified in your paper, which are the priority ones you feel those involved in the response should have at the front of their minds in this initial stage and why? 

All 16 lessons are relevant as they draw from decades of experiences by humanitarian practitioners. Yet, if I were to pick 3 for the immediate earthquake response, these would be: 

Lesson 1: Engage broadly and rapidly with local and national actors – even the most affected communities and authorities have some level of capacity after an earthquake

Lesson 8: Locate available spaces to store debris

Lesson 9: Anticipate issues related to loss of or inaccessible documentation as well as complex land tenure

Turkey earthquake test

'The emergency response of the Turkish authorities, the search and rescue teams and the Red Crescent was fast and efficient' says Carlos Afonso, ECHO's Rapid Response Coordinator sent to the disaster area. Credit: EU Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid

It is a common misconception that after an earthquake (as with any crisis), households and authorities in the area become helpless. Of course, some individuals will be in shock, but those living within the immediate proximity of where a crisis hit are the first responders. For example, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) took a leading role in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake and in 2007 in Peru. This lesson was highlighted by Rony Brauman, former President of MSF, in this podcast.  

Since the publication of our lessons paper on earthquakes in 2018, it has become ever clearer that local and national capacity to respond to disasters within their own borders is consistently under-supported and under-utilised.

There will be little excuse to ignore local actors in Türkiye and Syria, countries where there have been strong civil society actors with a track record in leading implementation of aid programmes when international actors could not, due to access issues – in Türkiye, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in Syria due to its civil war.  

National and international humanitarian organisations should engage broadly and rapidly with local CSO and local government actors. Even when time is short and there is an urgency to intervene, consider:  

> finding ways to direct support to local actors as quickly as possible and work with them to set priorities in the Humanitarian Response Plan 

> making coordination as accessible as possible to local actors, for example, by working in local languages. 

> building on existing local knowledge. In earthquake prone areas there is a wealth of highly contextualised knowledge that the international response could harness to improve the overall response. 

Debris management is a key challenge after an earthquake. Earthquakes cause a significant amount of debris and rubble when they destroy buildings and other infrastructure. This is particularly relevant in urban settings, as in Gaziantep, Ekinozu and many of the Turkish and Syrian cities that have been hit by the earthquake.  

One of the most urgent actions is to clear the debris to make critical roads and rescue sites accessible. This requires identifying available spaces that can temporarily store rubble. 

Beyond the issue of space availability, the question of who carries out debris management needs to be handled with care. The use of Cash for Work or Food for Work may seem like a good idea but there are significant risks and issues associated with such schemes that can’t be disregarded. Engaging non-specialised labour in debris clearance can expose individuals to safety hazards, remove part of a household’s workforce, and undermine more traditional forms of mutual help.

When the use of cash is relevant, consider disentangling the condition (i.e., the work) from the assistance (i.e., the cash). 

While this may not seem the most urgent thing to do as part of the first phase of a response, it has become an increasingly important issue in humanitarian responses.  

Earthquake-affected populations often lose, or no longer have access to, their identity documents or their deeds. Some form of identification is often a necessary condition to access government or humanitarian assistance.

One example from Nepal found that nearly 50% of surveyed women affected by the earthquake, no longer had their citizenship certificates, and 25% did not have their property papers. This is especially true when receiving cash assistance as financial service providers may be bound to conduct identity checks before making transactions. 

Land tenure and deeds are another important aspect. National land ownership laws may be unfamiliar to international organisations and/or difficult to navigate. Establishing informal ownership and operating in an environment where there is a lack of records can require local government entities to provide permission or act as a negotiator with landlords for reconstruction work to begin.

This can take a considerable amount of time, which is precious, especially when families are living in dire conditions, in cold weather. Also, Housing, Land and Property (HLP) as a theme within the humanitarian coordination architecture sits across two clusters or sectors: protection and shelter - which can make it harder to tackle these issues. So, it is important to start discussing these topics and bring in the necessary expertise early on in the process.

Helene, the 2018 lessons paper mentions cash assistance, and since then Key Aid has done a lot of work to understand the factors that contribute to effective cash and voucher assistance (CVA) and market-based approaches in humanitarian response. Can you summarise some key take aways for agencies setting up and disbursing CVA right now? 

In the first phase of an emergency, the priority is to ensure swift delivery of assistance and when it comes to the use of CVA, quick enrolment and disbursement. Humanitarian actors should agree on minimum identification requirements as quickly as possible, taking a ‘no-regrets’ approach to CVA delivery (i.e., it's better to act fast and give CVA to some people in lower levels of need than delaying and missing people who really need assistance immediately).

When doing so, consider:  

Taking into account the digital literacy of the affected population: for example, can self-registration via mobile phone be an option? In the Ukraine response, humanitarian organisations have registered more than 2.5 million people in less than 4 months, using self-registration and social registries. 

Asking ‘why not cash?’ but also ‘why not use existing social protection schemes and registries?’ For example, Türkiye’s Integrated Social Assistance Service Information System

Channels for remittances - Humanitarian assistance, and CVA in particular, is just a tiny portion of financial flows to crisis-affected areas. What are the channels used to send remittances, can they be used to deliver emergency cash too? 

Finally, the newly endorsed Cash Coordination Model should hopefully provide more predictability in the cash coordination architecture, facilitating discussions on transfer value, de-duplication of assistance and a useful way to ensure accountability to crisis affected households. 

We know from many crises that maintaining communication lines with the communities affected is critical but it can be challenging, particularly when infrastructure is damaged. What should responders be thinking about in reaching the people affected both for delivery of support and for consultation and communication? 

Our 2018 paper included an important lesson on establishing and maintaining lines of communications with communities affected by crisis. 

Lesson 3: Do not let infrastructure and access challenges get in the way of communication, especially with isolated communities 

This lesson may be easier to operationalise than it was in 2018, especially in Syria where humanitarian organisations have already developed systems and processes to work in environments that are difficult to access. As a result of the ongoing crisis, humanitarian organisations have developed a breadth of strategies to gain or maintain access in Syria, including remote management and the use of technologies. Some of these have been catalogued here.  

Beyond Syria, across the globe, humanitarian organisations also adjusted their ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this shift, attention has been drawn to getting remote monitoring & evaluation (M&E) right with greater consideration for the ethics, challenges and gaps that come along with this.

Good practice has emerged in 8 key areas:  

Make sure that context, digital access and patterns of device use are properly understood, especially when planning remote M&E to reach habitually excluded groups. 

Avoid or limit data-gathering on highly sensitive topics due to privacy concerns and signposting people to available resources or help regardless of whether it relates to the topic of your M&E activity. 

Focus data collection on needs that can be immediately resolved and feedback that can be addressed quickly to be the least extractive possible, which can mean negotiating with donors on the amount of data required for accountability. 

Weigh the potential for biased data with the value of having data right now.  

Do a data risk-benefits assessment and establish data-sharing & processing agreements to ensure people’s safety. 

Be conscious of those who might be excluded in remote communications - such as women or older people with less access to technology – and  build on existing community representation structures to gather inputs.  

Engage in social listening by paying attention to informal information networks and social media to understand community concerns.  

Remember that, even when taking the above considerations into account, engaging remotely with people affected by a crisis should be temporary where possible, as a majority of communities facing crises have expressed preferences for direct face to face engagement over remote communication

Jen, there are clearly aspects of this crisis that are quite unique: Syria has experienced over a decade of conflict and is already on the list of the top humanitarian crises; and Türkiye is a prominent host to many refugees from Syria. What aspects of this crisis do you think will require further learning from the sector? 

Since 2018, the humanitarian sector has rapidly evolved and this is likely to shape how the lessons identified in the paper can apply to this earthquake response. We can think both about lessons from that paper, for which there was more limited data in 2018, but also about new areas of specific relevance for refugee and conflict contexts. 

Environmental considerations 

Out of the lessons in the previous paper, the area with the potential for greatest new learning is: 

Lesson 4: Earthquakes should be used as an opportunity to ‘build back greener’ 

This lesson reads a lot like wishful thinking, and it is no surprise that cross-cutting issues are not always prioritised early in a response since, understandably, humanitarians are focused on saving lives in the current period. Yet the environment is an important factor to consider as the response moves to early recovery.

The environment is of particular relevance when looking at earthquake responses, considering the scale of destruction and the serious secondary impacts earthquakes have on the environment. For example, the destruction of infrastructure following an earthquake can increase pollution levels in the atmosphere and in water, while the choice of materials and methods to use in reconstruction can cause new environmental damage.

In 2018, ALNAP found a lack of literature on the topic which indicated that environmental concerns remained a relatively low priority. Since 2018, however, there has been more focus on environmental sustainability but also on the growing threat and incidence of climate change disasters. Humanitarians increasingly recognise the need to adapt and prepare for these crises rather than only mitigate pollution by being ‘greener’.

In rebuilding infrastructure damaged or destroyed by this earthquake, it will be important for humanitarians to consider how it can withstand both future earthquakes and also climate threats in this region. In these infrastructure efforts, humanitarians will be only one player.

Available learning indicates that they will need to work effectively with authorities and with development actors to consider these longer-term concerns that aim to reduce the humanitarian impact of disasters in the future. Much of the practical work may be conducted by these other actors but humanitarians can play a role in making connections and advocating adequate attention to future threats. In a world that has become much more aware of the importance of environmental sustainability and climate threats, I am hopeful to see more lessons on best practice emerge from this response. 

The specific socio-political contexts in Türkiye and Syria require us to also look beyond the lessons from the 2018 paper and consider other areas where learning may arise from this response. Two such areas are on programming in a protracted refugee crisis and application of humanitarian principles.

Protracted refugee crisis 

Given the large-scale refugee population in Türkiye, the humanitarian system has already been engaged in a response to protracted displacement for many years. We’ve seen in other contexts – such as Lebanon – that social cohesion between host populations and refugees can suffer when the context of the host country becomes more challenging for its citizens.

As the response continues, it will be useful to understand effective ways for humanitarians to provide assistance that can support positive social dynamics and avoid exacerbating inter-community tensions. 

Principled humanitarian assistance 

In terms of the application of humanitarian principles, we are already seeing challenges related to access in conflict-affected Syria. The 2022 SOHS noted that globally the system is finding it harder to conduct a principled response that can impartially access all people in need of humanitarian assistance.

This has been driven both by international politics and limited training and support to humanitarian staff who are faced with the reality of applying the principles on the frontline of a response.

Key lessons may be learned from the current earthquake crisis in Syria as we see how humanitarians attempt to operate in this politically charged and divided context during a time of acute humanitarian need.

It will be important for humanitarians responding in Türkiye and Syria to share their emerging knowledge on these issues, adding new contextual learning to what we already know about social cohesion in displacement and applying humanitarian principles in conflict settings.