The unprecedented size of the challenge we are facing today to address this humanitarian imperative calls for a greater level of engagement, financial and political, of a more diversified set of actors, including humanitarian organizations, development agencies and the private sector, writes Philip Spoerri, former Head of Delegation of ICRC in Syria.
In Syria, some 13.4 million people – out of a current population of approximately 18 million – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Now entering its eleventh year, the conflict in Syria has been characterized by destruction of lives, homes and infrastructure on a vast scale, large-scale displacement, deteriorating economic situation with millions pushed deeper into poverty since the start of the pandemic in 2020, a refugee crisis that has reverberated around the world, and lastly a conflict that has been marked by a shocking disregard for the laws of armed conflict. Such a protracted conflict means that even if there were an end in sight to the violence, the long-term needs of Syrians are immense.
Syria has the highest number of displaced persons in the world. One in two Syrians has been displaced by the conflict, either abroad or within the country, and not only once. Today, there are 6.2 million IDPs in Syria, including 2.5 million children. Some 5.6 million Syrians have sought refuge overseas. There are no accurate figures for the number of people killed in the conflict, but they are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
The north-east continues to host over 100,000 IDPs who fled areas affected by hostilities, in addition to long-term refugees from Iraq, and stranded women and children from more than 60 countries in camps like Al-Hol. Living conditions in Al-Hol camp remain very harsh. Today, around 60,000 people live in this camp; about 90% of these are women and children, and an estimated two-thirds of the camp’s population are children, most under the age of 5 years. The medical needs remain huge, including mother and child healthcare, pediatrics, surgery, mental health, and physical rehabilitation. There are children in the camp who have never left its perimeter, others who have died in the camp without ever leaving, having spent their whole short life there.
While millions of people need immediate support rebuilding their lives, families, homes and livelihoods, critical infrastructures providing essential services are also on the brink of total collapse and need urgent attention.
The drinking water systems of Syria’s eight main urban centers, Daraa, Damascus / rural Damascus, Homs, Hama, Tartous, Lattakia, Aleppo and Hassakeh have been severely damaged by the hostilities and are coming closer to a breaking point. They further deteriorated over the past decade due to the lack of proper operation and maintenance, lack of spare parts and brain drain, to mention a few. Compared to 2011, the production of drinking water is down 30-40%.
There are already many examples of large facilities that collapsed. The wastewater treatment plants that serve Damascus and Aleppo cities were rendered inoperable in 2012 as a result of direct destruction and looting.
For the past 10 years, the ICRC has carried out thousands of engineering projects, both responding to emergencies and providing sustained support to local service providers to stem the decline in service delivery. The ICRC has continuously called for the protection and preservation of critical infrastructure, in line with international humanitarian law.
But the unprecedented size of the challenge we are facing today to address this humanitarian imperative calls for a greater level of engagement, financial and political, of a more diversified set of actors, including humanitarian organizations, development agencies and the private sector. “This is about finding practical solutions in water, sanitation, education, health, basic electricity, basic income for people,” stressed ICRC President, Peter Maurer during his last visit to Syria in March.