By Huw Owen – Disaster Emergency Committee in Scotland.

The huge earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria a month ago weren’t necessarily a huge surprise in an area with an historic vulnerability to seismic shocks, but the scale of the devastation was an enormous shock - turning millions of lives upside down in an instant.

The intensity of the two quakes (7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale) that hit the region within hours of each other on February 6th were made more devastating as the tectonic ruptures took place relatively near the earth’s surface.  Even worse, their epicentres were right next to a number of major cities and population centres – where millions of people were asleep and oblivious to the coming terror.  It’s the worst disaster there in 200 years.

One of the first overseas aid workers to arrive in Southern Turkey was Kenny Hamilton from Glasgow.  He’s been a disaster relief coordinator for many years but was shocked at the scale of the devastation he witnessed on arrival.

“I was involved in helping the people of Haiti in 2010 and the Nepal earthquake in 2015 and I’ve never seen anything like this before.  Buildings looked like they’ve been bombed and you have to pinch yourself to realise you’re not in a movie set.”

This disaster is even more shocking to me because I haven’t seen so many modern buildings like this collapse before, they’re like the high-rise blocks in Glasgow or something you’d see when you’re on holiday. The scale of the destruction is incredible.” 

“Many people are staying in tents in or around football stadiums as they want to stay near their collapsed homes - they are still hoping for a miracle in finding family members alive, unfortunately that’s now very unlikely.”

At time of writing, more than 50,000 people are known to have died, a similar number of buildings, many of them tower blocks, have been severely damaged or completely collapsed.  The size of the area affected is also staggering. If it had happened here, it would have caused destruction and disruption across all of mainland Scotland.

Video explainer available to download here

That in itself should give us pause for thought.  However, the devastation hit millions of people whose lives had already been threatened by more than a decade of civil war in Syria.  That includes millions of refugees in southern Turkey and even more internally displaced people, IDPs, trapped in appalling conditions in Northwest Syria – do you remember the news coverage of Aleppo or Idlib?  Aid workers there describe families living for years in tents as the lucky ones - many now hosting families whose temporary homes or shelters folded during the quakes.

Amidst this trauma and misery, there has been a degree of fortune for many survivors as a number of UK humanitarian charities have been supporting aid efforts in this region throughout the Syrian civil war, providing shelter, food and clean water and other support to the most vulnerable communities and individuals.

This crucial factor made it much easier for the Disaster Emergency Committee to launch an urgent appeal for support from the UK public just three days after the earthquakes.  The power and effectiveness of the DEC comes when 15 of the UK’s leading aid charities come together with the main UK broadcasters to collectively ask the public, governments and major companies to donate as much as they can to support an urgent, effective humanitarian response.  This formula, a unified call to action always raises millions of pounds within days which allows DEC members like the Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children to accelerate delivery of aid to those who need it most.

In the hours following the earthquakes, the initial response was led by emergency services and volunteers, such as the Turkish and Syrian Red Crescent, just like it would here when there are similar, fortunately much smaller, emergencies such as flooding or landslides.

As the scale of the devastation became clear at daybreak, the response would have been quickly escalated through regional agencies to the Turkish government in Ankara.  Shortly after that, a formal request was made for international assistance via the United Nations.

DEC charities work alongside the UN’s humanitarian coordination body, OCHA and as a result, the needs of affected populations can be rapidly assessed, appropriate support identified and coordinated.  This is usually delivered through the local partners, who initially responded, the ones who know the geography along with the cultures, customs and needs of the most vulnerable families and communities who need the most help.

With the flexible funds now pouring into DEC here in the UK - more than £100 million in the first three weeks of the Appeal - huge numbers of people have already been helped.  In Turkey, the Red Cross/Red Crescent has alone delivered 70 million hot meals and 60,000 tents in the first two weeks of their response.  In addition, a key priority is providing clean water and re-establishing water supplies and other utilities.  Dirty water and the diseases it  can carry are often responsible for many more deaths in major disasters.

Kenny Hamilton is one of very few UK aid workers who have been flown into the region.  As an expert in earthquake recovery, he knows the rhythms of a response like this, who needs what, where and when.  Whilst the news moves on experts like Kenny will remain in the region for months to come along, beyond this acute early phase, as people continue to process their trauma and start to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods.

None of this would be possible without the compassion and solidarity of people and organisations across Scotland and the rest of the UK.  Whilst the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, more than £9 million has been raised here in Scotland for the Turkey Syria Appeal, more than £37 million for the DEC’s continuing response in Ukraine along with millions more for the Pakistan floods and the ongoing hunger crisis in Afghanistan.

To everyone that has supported our work and those we hope will donate soon, we say a huge thank you. 

Donations can be made on the DEC website For people who may want to support in other ways including fundraising, then there is further advice here.