Syrian Cities Damage Atlas - Eight Year Anniversary of the Syrian Civil War: Thematic assessment of satellite identified damage



On the eighth anniversary of the Syrian civil war, the legacy of violence and destruction is evident across the country. Civilian suffering continues, and much of the infrastructure that allows life to prosper - be that homes, schools, hospitals or other essential facilities - has been damaged or destroyed. Throughout the war, the 53% of the Syrian population living in urban areas have been affected by significant aerial bombardments and fighting within towns and cities. The effects of this are felt on a daily basis by citizens living with the legacy of damage in some areas, and continued destruction caused by ongoing hostilities in others.

11.7 million people in Syria are reportedly in need of humanitarian assistance.

The large-scale destruction in urban contexts has created a vast number of cross sector challenges. Damage to infrastructure is a cross-cutting issue that impacts on all elements of life. The problems created by damage intersect, with far reaching effects:

In Deir-ez-Zor, it was reported by an aid worker that the majority of medical facilities in some neighbourhoods had been destroyed, leading to the displacement of medical staff. This situation was compounded by damage to the road network, which limited access to medical supplies and hindered the ability to travel to alternate facilities.

Despite the continued crisis within Syria, 1.4 million spontaneous returns were reported in 2018 with UNHCR anticipating 250,000 further returns in 2019

. Despite this relative uptick in return, overall conditions in Syria remain extremely challenging, due to the ongoing security situation, poor socio-economic conditions, and large-scale damage. In addition to the 5.7 million refugees outside of Syria, over six million people remain displaced inside Syria.

Reporting on the condition of infrastructure in major population centres provides necessary context to the present crisis in Syria. It fosters understanding of the needs of the resident population, and of the likely conditions for spontaneous returnees upon their return to Syria.

This damage atlas provides an overview of infrastructure damage in 16 towns and cities across Syria, as well as the Eastern Ghouta region (Duma, Arbin, Harasta, Misraba), providing some of the context needed to understand post-conflict conditions. It also provides a brief overview of current conditions within settlements, the conflicts that led to the damage and destruction of buildings, as well as the impact that this has had on residents’ lives.

This damage atlas uses satellite-detected damage analysis to identify buildings that are either destroyed, or severely, or moderately damaged. This analysis was carried out by UNITAR-UNOSAT (United Nations Institute for Training and Research - Operational Satellite Applications Programme), in a framework with REACH, and has been visualised and developed further to provide an overview of the extent of damage and its impact on the community.

Satellite detected analysis of damage is a useful method to provide an overview of damage in cities, but is not without limitations: When assessing damage, a judgment on damage level is made from an aerial view only. The damage findings presented are indicative only, but provide a sense of relative scale of damage across different locations. Where additional information such as neighbourhood boundaries was available, further analysis of damage density has been carried out. This is useful in both highlighting areas where damage is moderate or low and rehabilitation may be possible and areas where longer-term humanitarian support is likely required because of the severity of damage.

This analysis does not represent the most up-to-date overview of structural rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts for each city, but is based on the latest available analysis conducted after the most recent major conflict for each city. Due to this, each analysis has been carried out at different times over the last five years. The main reason for using data collected close after the last major conflict in each settlement is to avoid mistakenly identifying buildings that have been cleared in rehabilitation efforts with buildings that have been destroyed during conflict.

Where possible, REACH approached Key Informants (KIs) to provide an informal opinion on how damage has affected the lives of people in their communities. This has then been included for the majority of settlements assessed.

Visual analysis

The methods used to visualise the data within maps include density analysis, in the form of heat maps. A heat map creates a surface to visualise damage density, with darker areas showing a greater concentration of destroyed and severely damaged structures (see page 8 for an example). Analysis has also been carried out to show relative density of damage by neighbourhood. This has been calculated on a per hectare basis - the number of damage points per hectare of the neighbourhood. This allows for some comparability of damage between neighbourhoods, while accounting for their different sizes. The method is however limited in that the building density varies across cities, so it favours more densely built up areas.

UNITAR-UNOSAT define their damage classifications as:

  1. Building Destroyed: all or most of the building structure is collapsed (75% - 100% of structure destroyed).

  2. Building Severely Damaged: a significant part of the building structure is collapsed (30%-75% of structure destroyed).

  3. Building Moderately Damaged: limited damage observed to the building structure (5%-30% of structure damaged).