Complex crises pushing NGOs beyond capabilities, says relief organisation

Protracted crises in cities and towns across the Middle East puts NGOs under strain to provide relief and basic services such as sanitation

Conflicts in the Middle East are increasingly being played out in urban areas, where massive infrastructure damage leaves relief organisations juggling emergency response and long-term development, according to an NGO.

The rise in the number of protracted crises in cities and towns across the region means NGOs engaged in disaster response have to cater to immediate relief while also keeping large-scale urban water and energy systems running, said Michael Talhami, regional water and habitat advisor for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“Many NGOs are overstretched and playing beyond their traditional roles and capabilities,” said Talhami, speaking at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid & Development (DIHAD) conference on Thursday. The ICRC says it covers up to 80 per cent of the chemical needs for water treatment in Syria.

Experts representing global NGOs and other relief agencies attended the final day of DIHAD to discuss the changing role of non-governmental organisations in the face of growing humanitarian crises, particularly in the Middle East.

Interruptions to water, sanitation and energy resources during conflict exacerbated already poor urban infrastructure and has grave implications for public health, added ICRC’s Talhami.

The breakdown of public health systems in Syria has seen the re-emergence of deadly diseases, such as polio and measles.

In 2010, a total of 26 measles cases were reported in the whole of Syria for the entire year, compared to 84 cases recorded in the north of the country in the first week of 2014 alone, according to global charity Save the Children.

Such complex situations mean NGOs must be smarter in the way they respond. Every $1 invested in ensuring access to water and sanitation saves $8 spent on curative health, according to the ICRC.

Aid and relief NGOs must work on the demand side to ensure the provision of essential services, rather than looking only at the supply side, such as digging new wells for water, said Talhami.

Repairing badly damaged infrastructure is a problem across the region. Donors pledged $5.4bn in October last year to rebuild Gaza, while IRIN news reported just 5 per cent of that money had been received by mid-February 2015.