A year in emergencies

Sophie Mack Smith Emergency, Humanitarian

Sophie Mack-Smith reflects on the humanitarian events of 2017 and how Oxfam responded, both to new disasters and chronic crises.

From Bangladesh to the Philippines, Iraq, DRC, Yemen, South Sudan, Syria and Somalia, Oxfam brought lifesaving aid to nearly 10 million people last year. But not everyone can be reached, and tragically the scale of need looks set only to grow in the year ahead. Here’s a quick run through the events of 2017 through the lens of our global humanitarian team.


As the year begins, the city of Aleppo in Syria has just been recaptured from rebel forces. 110,000 people have fled. We are one of very few agencies able to bring clean water to them. We are also rushing to supply water in Damascus where about 5.5 million people have had their water supply cut off (reportedly deliberately targeted).

The battle for Mosul has begun in Iraq… we are meeting needs while preparing to support hundreds of thousands more.
The battle for Mosul has begun in Iraq – 170,000 have fled so far and we are meeting needs while preparing to support hundreds of thousands more who are expected to leave as fighting intensifies.

In Afghanistan about 600,000 Afghans recently returned from years in Pakistan are camping in the eastern province of Jalalabad, where we begin helping the poorest with short-term aid, on the understanding that most will slowly head back to their former homes.

In Ethiopia we are gearing up to bring water to communities suffering from a worsening drought – within January alone we increase our beneficiaries from 20,000 to 50,000. We also begin a public health campaign in response to an outbreak of typhoid in Zimbabwe.

Further East, the Pacific typhoon season hits the Philippines and Fiji in mid-December, and our teams on the ground provide emergency aid to some of the worst-hit communities.


Oxfam publicly warns of an unprecedented four famines that look likely to occur during 2017, in South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia
Oxfam publicly warns of an unprecedented four famines that look likely to occur during 2017, in South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia, bringing 20 million people to the brink of starvation.

South Sudan does declare famine in February, and the numbers of refugees into Ethiopia soars. Our staff in Ethiopia’s Gambella region are designing and running the whole water network for 60,000 people. Innovative sanitation facilities include tiger-worm toilets, and toilets that separate liquids from solids, reducing both smell and disease risk.

In Nigeria our teams are first into areas made newly accessible as Boko Haram forces are forced out by government troops. Packing helicopters with emergency equipment – latrine slabs, wood, tarpaulins, tools – they bring vital aid.


The Government of Zimbabwe declares a national disaster as torrential rain and flooding devastates parts of the country. Our staff provide logistical support for the delivery of food and hygiene equipment.

We are ramping up efforts to support Burundian refugees in Tanzania. We begin delivering cash aid to people affected by drought in Sri Lanka through a local mobile network provider. Meanwhile we support two longstanding partners to bring critical water and sanitation services to 10,000 people in flood-hit areas of Peru.

Panyijar County, South Sudan, is a wetland area where thousands of people have fled fighting. After hearing horrific accounts of children drowning on their journeys through deep water, we set up a canoe voucher scheme to help people afford water taxis. We also begin expanding our own food aid programme in several states – something we now do rarely, in those exceptional cases where there is absolutely no food available in markets.


Bidi Bidi settlement in Uganda is named the world’s largest refugee camp with 270,000 South Sudanese residents
The Horn of Africa becomes a priority for Oxfam as the effects of a severe drought start to be felt. We reopen a base in Somalia, immediately supplying clean water and cash to 12,000 people. We’re now helping 325,000 people in Ethiopia. Meanwhile Bidi Bidi settlement in Uganda is named the world’s largest refugee camp with 270,000 South Sudanese residents, and our engineers are working around the clock to bring water to people arriving at the border after days with little to drink.

Floods and landslides hit southern Colombia, and our staff begin working alongside local organisations to reconnect water networks damaged by mudslides.


Nearly 350,000 people have fled Mosul, and Oxfam staff are helping 270,000. We are keeping the water flowing and latrines functioning in camps, while making regular household visits to people based in other settlements.

The UN highly commends Oxfam on water and sanitation systems we installed in camps in western Ethiopia several years back, which are still functioning well. Less positively, our rapid response teams working in South Sudan reduce the food rations they are distributing in order to spread available supplies further.



The cholera epidemic in Yemen is reaching an unprecedented scale. Ongoing conflict has reduced people to such a level of poverty and vulnerability to disease that it threatens to get out of control. Our teams redouble their efforts, and we send in additional water storage tanks, buckets, tap stands water testing and purification kits, and oral rehydration sachets.

Southern Africa is starting to feel the effects of the driest conditions in 35 years, with millions facing food shortages. We rapidly boost our efforts in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

The sudden flare-up of fighting in Marawi city in Mindanao, Philippines quickly forces about 300,000 people from their homes. We respond through local organisations with hygiene kits and information, kitchen essentials and sleeping materials. We also help set up a radio show offering advice to displaced people.


We have a new base in southern DRC to respond to a new crisis in Kasai. This programme is in addition to support we continue to give to communities in other provinces, with staff and equipment being stretched more thinly to accommodate the extra work.

In Nigeria our teams are doing their utmost to keep drinking water flowing for refugees returning from Cameroon. The temperature is well over 40 degrees, and water scarcity is causing tensions. We are also working hard to counter Hepatitis E which has already broken out in neighbouring Niger.

A team in northern India responds to severe flooding, working with the local government to plan public health facilities to reduce the threat of diseases.


The monsoon season brings torrential rain to large parts of Asia; with two-thirds of Bangladesh under water. An experienced emergency team in Nepal sets off immediately to assess needs, while in Bangladesh our local partners carry out search-and-rescue operations and help the authorities set up temporary flood shelters. We reach 186,000 people this month.

The Ethiopian Government reports that at least 8.5 million people will require relief food in the second part of 2017. So far this year we have managed to help 600,000 people. Figures for Kenya also show more people slipping into dependence on food aid.

A camp we helped set up for 27,000 people fleeing violence in Tanganyika province of DRC is burned in fighting between rival local groups, destroying the water and sanitation infrastructure. Oxfam GB’s CEO Mark Goldring visits DRC specifically to draw attention to this neglected crisis – we are supporting 350,000 people across the country but there are not enough agencies or funding to do what is needed.


Hurricane Irma batters the Caribbean, and Mexico suffers a series of earthquakes. We mount small responses in Dominican Republic and Cuba to help people with public health facilities and shelter.  Haiti – potentially the most vulnerable country – was fortunately spared the worst.

Fresh violence in Rakhine state in Myanmar causes a mass exodus of Rohingya people towards neighbouring Bangladesh, by the end of September there are 500,000 new arrivals. We send in a team of specialists and mobilise equipment to mount an urgent public health response.

South Sudanese refugees continue to move into northern Uganda. We are working hard to get new water sources into use. Rain is making everything harder, flooding bridges, damaging food supplies, and hampering construction. Malaria and respiratory infections remain a high risk. More must be done to ensure safety, especially for young women, with a high rate of underage pregnancy reported.

Our small team in Sicily continues to support migrants arriving through Libya, focusing on the most vulnerable ones such as unaccompanied under-18s.


In South Sudan we are airdropping food. This is logistically complex, requiring planes to fly as low as possible, and porters to be waiting on the ground to collect the supplies and distribute them. It works as a short-term coping mechanism but the operation is still spread too thinly. We’re trying to feed 200,000 people.

Thousands of South Sudanese people have fled north-west to Darfur province in Sudan. Current predictions estimate they could live there for several years. We are supporting them with emergency relief, while also investigating what jobs the refugees might do alongside the local community.

Our efforts to support Rohingya people in Bangladesh gain momentum, reaching 185,000 within the month. But conditions where people are living are horrendous – packed together in mud, in such chaos that many people are afraid if they leave their shelters they won’t find their way back.


The Saudi regime shuts off all routes into Yemen. Yemenis depend on imports for 90% of their food, fuel, and medicines, and the UN warns that Yemen faces the world’s largest famine in decades. Our staff are moving minimally to conserve fuel. Much of our work (eg keeping water flowing using large solar installations for power) can continue with local staff and partners.

In Jordan we’ve worked in Za’atari camp for almost five years. Including designing a camp-wide water and sanitation network which supplies individual households, the first such design for a refugee camp. The 80,000 Syrians living in Za’atari won’t be going home soon, so we are excited this month to see the progress in a recycling project to help people reuse the huge amounts of waste into recycled products for sale. One fifth of Za’atari’s waste is now diverted from landfills into income-generating activities for enterprising refugees.


Typhoon season once again hits the Pacific – the Philippines is hit by two in quick succession. Our local partners mobilise swiftly to support people.

Predictions about impending famine across South Sudan are very worrying. The worst of it is likely to be felt in several months but the team begins preparing now. It is clear that in terms of hunger 2018 will be worse than 2017. For more gloomy predictions see the IRIN’s 10 humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018.

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Robbie Silverman