Syria Has Become a Humanitarian Catastrophe of Epic Proportions

A political solution is needed to bring an end to the fighting, but in the meantime, we can and must do more to help the region withstand the far-reaching effects of the conflict -- and we must do it better, faster and smarter.
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The scope of human suffering in and around Syria is practically impossible to describe. Of the many humanitarian crises ongoing around the world today in which Mercy Corps is helping people survive, this one is the most complex. In fact, it may well be the most tragic and complicated humanitarian crisis Mercy Corps has faced in our 35 years of existence. Internal strife in Syria continues; deadly confrontations are spilling over the borders; and the mass flight of Syria's citizens into neighboring countries is straining the entire region.

Let me tell you the story of Ahmed, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee, who painted the flags of rebel groups draped limply over a blood-stained map of Syria. He expressed disgust at the infighting that had led the Free Syria Army to lose ground in the war. Still, he said, "I would rather return to Syria to fight and die with dignity than live in humiliation as a refugee."

Forced to leave their homes, belongings and loved ones behind, many young Syrians feel they've lost their childhoods and the futures they dreamt for themselves. Ahmed's story gives you a glimpse at the hardship felt by one young man. Now multiply Ahmed's suffering by 9.3 million. It is perhaps beyond our human ability to conceptualize. And yet, the number of people who need help is growing, minute by minute.

Fighting continues and refugees are still flowing into already stressed neighboring communities; host nations are increasingly demanding that any assistance for refugees be matched by investments to address long-term host-country needs; and wide-scale instability is escalating. Institutional donors are fatigued and individual donors are barely interested. Consider this: Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian organization I work for, raised more private charitable dollars in three days for its emergency response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines -- about $1.5 million -- than we have for Syria in almost three years.

To be sure, good work is being conducted in the region. And an invaluable partner in the relief effort has been the U.S. Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which coordinates the federal government's response to overseas disasters -- a job OFDA has been doing now for 50 years. OFDA is a vital Mercy Corps partner. Thanks to their support, we have been delivering aid to 1.7 million Syrians inside the embattled country. OFDA and its parent organization, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have also been particularly effective in providing support in Jordan. Among a number of projects, for example, USAID funding led to a major upgrade of the country's already overtaxed water system, allowing Jordan to deliver more clean water to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who so desperately need it as well as to the host communities impacted by the influx of close to 600,000 new residents.

But similar efforts have been stymied in other neighboring countries where the political environment, security constraints and other factors have not been conducive to easing the expanding crisis. The fact of the matter is that international aid is simply not flowing fast enough, particularly into countries such as Lebanon, thus turning the situation from dire to terrifying. Refugees now make up 20 percent of the population; the continued rapid influx is stretching resources in local communities to a breaking point. Iraq, too, is facing new strains, exacerbated by both the Syrian refugee population and the current fighting, which has forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee from their homes since the beginning of the year.

Those of us working to help people survive in and around Syria understand that we are doomed to failure unless we find new ways to provide long-term support throughout the region as the conflict drags on. Short-term programs are alleviating some immediate suffering, but aren't addressing the longer-term problems upon which future stability depends. Humanitarian funding cannot alone be expected to deal with this situation; major development financing is required, and urgently.

A new approach is needed: substantial investments should be made into existing local systems to solve the problems not only of refugees, but also of host countries, and on a large scale. With the collaborative involvement of both host and refugee populations, we need to meet immediate humanitarian needs, while keeping an eye on building the long-term resilience of communities -- that is, helping them better cope, adapt and rebound from this devastating crisis.

Already, the Syrian crisis is a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. A political solution is needed to bring an end to the fighting, but in the meantime, we can and must do more to help the region withstand the far-reaching effects of the conflict -- and we must do it better, faster and smarter.

This post is part of a five-part series produced by The Huffington Post, USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, and the NGO alliance InterAction to commemorate World Humanitarian Day. World Humanitarian Day (August 19) honors aid workers who have lost their lives helping the millions of people affected by disasters around the world. This past year has seen four large-scale "Level 3" humanitarian crises -- Syria, Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and the Philippines -- that are stretching the capacity of the humanitarian system. To learn more about these crises, visit here. For more information about USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, visit here; further information on InterAction can be found here. To follow the conversation on Twitter look for #WHD2014.

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