Editor’s note, February 9, 11:30 am ET: This story is no longer being updated. Please find Vox’s latest coverage of the earthquake and aftermath here.
The death toll has exceeded 20,000 in the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria this week, making it one of the most destructive disasters in decades and adding to the devastation in a region already roiling from years of conflict and economic and humanitarian crises.
A more than 10-year civil war in Syria has destabilized the region for years, which is still suffering from an ongoing — and chronically underfunded — humanitarian emergency. Millions are displaced within Syria or have fled to Turkey, which is contending with high inflation and a deepening economic crisis. The earthquake unleashed widespread damage and destruction in some of the most at-risk areas in the region.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near Nurdağı, in southern Turkey around 4:17 am local time on February 6, according to the United States Geological Survey. A magnitude 7.5 earthquake followed around later that afternoon, around 1 pm local time, along with scores of powerful aftershocks.
Thousands are injured, and thousands more remain trapped in the rubble — though the chance of finding survivors gets narrower and narrower. Turkey said at least 8,000 people have been rescued so far, and search and recovery operations continue, with assistance from teams around the world. But freezing weather is hampering rescue efforts, and making it even more difficult to access possible survivors.
An earthquake compounds decades of crises
This catastrophe hit an already fragile region, which has been marred by decades of civil war in Syria, and economic, humanitarian, and public health crises. Turkey is facing a profound economic crisis, with a collapsing currency and extraordinary inflation that hit around 80 percent last year, the highest in about 25 years. A survey from late summer found that almost 70 percent of those polled in Turkey had trouble affording food. For years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has embraced a heterodox economic policy, which involves keeping interest rates low, leaving the Turkish Central Bank with few tools to cool down the overheating economy. The economic costs of the earthquake are not fully clear, but the United States Geological Survey estimates it could be about 2 percent of Turkey’s GDP.
This part of Turkey — including Gaziantep, which is near where the quake hit — also hosts a large population of Syrian refugees. The economic crisis in Turkey has helped fuel a backlash against the approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country, who are already facing poverty, discrimination, an increase in violent attacks, and the risks of deportation.
Within Syria, the civil war continues, and it has created one of the world’s most persistent — and persistently underfunded — humanitarian crises. The earthquake created widespread destruction in northern Syria, including the last rebel-held holdout in the northwest, where it is estimated hundreds and hundreds of people were killed. About 4 million people there, many of them displaced from other parts of Syria many times over, depend on international humanitarian assistance. Much of that food and medical aid arrives from one border crossing from Turkey, which the was damaged in the earthquake. The first United Nations aid convey crossed into northern Syria on Thursday.
Humanitarian groups in the region fear the earthquake will deepen the humanitarian emergency. “Our colleagues in North West Syria reported that the situation is catastrophic, with the area affected by the earthquake being the center for over 1.8 million displaced Syrians who were already suffering after a decade of conflict in Syria,” said Kieren Barnes, Mercy Corps country director for Syria, in a statement. “Already, 4.1 million people were going hungry in North West Syria and food insecurity has worsened since the war in Ukraine started, with prices of essential food items spiking and shortages of staples in some communities.”
More than 2 million people in northwestern Syria are also at risk of a deadly cholera outbreak. The outbreak began in northeastern Syria, attributed to contaminated water from the Euphrates River — which people were relying on, in part, because of the water infrastructure destroyed by years of fighting. About 47 percent of people in Syria rely on unsafe drinking water, a potentially even bigger risk after the massive infrastructure damage wrought by the earthquake. In northwest Syria, in particular, this outbreak was straining an already stretched and under-resourced health system, which will now also need to find ways to treat those injured in the earthquake.
“Many in northwest Syria have been displaced up to 20 times, and with health facilities strained beyond capacity, even before this tragedy many did not have access to the health care they critically need,” Tanya Evans, Syria country director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.
Ground fighting still breaks out in northwestern Syria, as do deadly airstrikes, usually from pro-government forces, which hit northwestern Syria. But for years, the Syrian government, with help from Russia, battered cities in northern Syria, like Idlib and Aleppo, and the surrounding area, all of which has weakened and damaged buildings and infrastructure. Tens of thousands are already living in makeshift shelters, camps, or tents. “What makes it more dangerous is that the bombing has affected the buildings, which have almost destroyed infrastructure,” a White Helmets representative told the Washington Post.
The devastation extends beyond northwest Syria, as the country as a whole has been overwhelmed by years of war and destruction. International sanctions against Syria are also deepening the economic crisis Syrians face. The country faces record and widespread poverty and food shortages. About 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, and nearly 75 percent struggle to meet their most basic needs. The war in Ukraine, which has raised food and fuel prices worldwide, has also strained the Syrian economy.
In Syria, too, where pro-government and opposition groups have control in different areas, there is a risk of unequal aid access and assistance in the wake of the quake. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has few international friends, and though partners like Russia and Iran have offered support, it is likely that most Western governments will support the UN and other humanitarian organizations, rather than provide direct support. John Kirby, the National Security Council’s chief coordinator, said Monday on a call that the US is working with “humanitarian aid organizations that we routinely partner with to assist them in their efforts on the ground and Syria.” But, again, the primary aid route into Syria is now shut.
And across the region, the crisis is still acute, as agencies and officials rush to find survivors in the rubble and temperatures drop. The White House has described the situation as “fluid,” and many humanitarian agencies are trying to fully assess the situation. The Guardian also reports that there are questions about the response ability of many aid agencies in the region, as many of them are based in places like Gaziantep, ravaged by the quake.
The earthquake compounds catastrophe upon catastrophe in Syria and Turkey. It is likely to exacerbate those that already exist — displacement, food, economic, and health — while creating new, unpredictable ones.