More than 5,000 people have been confirmed dead from the powerful earthquakes that struck central Turkey and northwest Syria, as weather conditions hamper efforts to rescue survivors.
An unknown number of people remain trapped under the debris and the World Health Organization warned the number of casualties could exceed 20,000. Up to 23 million people could be affected, the WHO said.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Tuesday that the death toll in Turkey rose to 3,419, while another 20,534 had been injured.
Thousands of buildings were flattened in cities stretching across a vast region. Rescue teams continue searching under piles of cement and metal, but freezing temperatures are limiting the time they have to act.
“It is now a race against time,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explaining that the U.N. health agency was urgently sending aid to the area.
The ongoing civil war in Syria is also complicating relief efforts. The death toll in Syrian government held areas rose to 812, according to the state news agency SANA. Deaths have been reported as far as Hama, some 100 km from the epicenter. In the rebel-held Syrian northwest, the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, have confirmed 790 fatalities.
According to the WHO, Syria will be facing the most urgent need of help in the immediate and medium term.
U.S. President Joe Biden called the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to express condolences and offer assistance to the NATO ally. The White House said it was sending search-and-rescue teams to support Turkey’s efforts.
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for international assistance, noting that people in the areas hit “were already in dire need of humanitarian aid” during a General Assembly session Monday.
Europe on Monday activated its civil protection mechanism to deploy help for victims. Some 19 EU countries have sent coordinated search and rescue teams as well as medical aid. In total, 1,185 rescuers and 79 search dogs have been offered by the European countries and numbers could rise further. The EU also activated the Copernicus satellite system to provide emergency mapping of the affected area.
“In Syria, the EU is in contact with its humanitarian partners on the ground and is funding humanitarian organisations that are carrying out search and rescue operations, while also providing water and sanitation support, and distributing blankets and hygiene items in affected areas,” the European Commission said in a statement.
Just three months before Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdoğan faces a tremendous reconstruction challenge. Even before the earthquakes, the country was facing an economic crunch with inflation running at 58 percent.
In many areas the buildings that collapsed were built in early 2010 and should normally have complied with the seismic regulations in force after the 1999 earthquakes.
The government’s handling of this humanitarian crisis could affect the election results. The response of the government to the huge earthquake in northwest Turkey in 1999 was widely seen as a determining factor in the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP party.