In an unprecedented situation, the United Nations has declared four of the world’s humanitarian crises "Level 3," the organization’s highest designation. They are Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and the Central African Republic.
The number and scale of these humanitarian crises — all of which are in active conflict zones — are placing extraordinary demands on the international aid system, according to organizations with people in these countries.
"I haven’t seen anything of this scale before," said Noah Gottschalk, senior policy advisor for humanitarian response at Oxfam America. "Across the board, the humanitarian community sees this as one of the worst moments we’ve ever had to confront in terms of simultaneous, mostly man-made crises."
He added that while aid organizations like Oxfam "are working to ease the suffering, there’s ultimately no humanitarian answer to these crises — the only real solutions are political."
Another unwelcome milestone was marked in June when U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres announced that for the first time since World War II, the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide exceeded 50 million people.
The complexity and scope of these problems are also unparalleled, said Craig Redmond, senior vice president of programs at Mercy Corps, which has people working in all four Level 3 countries. Sending staff into the midst of ethnic and sectarian conflicts marked by extreme violence requires aid groups to take extra measures to ensure their safety.
"It is really tough to meet all of these needs," said Gerald Anderson, senior director in the department of humanitarian response at Save the Children. The number of crises demanding a response has "put a strain on resources, staff capacity, and fundraising."
The U.N. increased its rating for Iraq on Wednesday, the day before President Barack Obama announced that a U.S. rescue mission on Mount Sinjar was no longer necessary.
"Declaring the crisis in Iraq a ‘Level 3 Emergency,’ which represents the highest level of humanitarian crisis, will help trigger more resources and expedite administrative procedures for the response," said Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations secretary-general’s special representative for Iraq, in a statement.
Most of the 40,000 people — members of Iraq’s Yazidi community — who were stranded on the mountain have made their way to safety, sometimes by walking for days, and therefore no longer need the U.S. military to evacuate them. While temporarily safe from the threat of the Islamic State, the Yazidis’ basic needs like water, food, and sanitation still need to be met.
And they’re not alone. The U.N. estimates that 1.2 million people in central and northern Iraq are internally displaced, and that 1.5 million people there need humanitarian assistance.
"Our donors’ support, especially from the Saudi government, has made a huge contribution. But more assistance will be needed in the long run," said Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at a press briefing in Erbil on Thursday.
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a forum involving key U.N. and non-U.N. humanitarian partners, determines what gets Level 3 emergency designation. The system is relatively new; it was established after a review of the international response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Emergency status is supposed to ensure that when the scale, scope, and complexity of a crisis are massive, the humanitarian community takes certain internal steps to prioritize it in terms of leadership and resources. It also accelerates the releasing of funds.
South Sudan received its Level 3 status in February. According to the U.N., 3.8 million Sudanese need humanitarian assistance, and more than 1 million of them have fled their homes because of violence.
Redmond said South Sudan does not get the same attention as Iraq, Syria, and other places but the international community is deeply worried that the trouble there could become regional. The possibility of famine is also growing: At least 1.1 million Sudanese don’t have enough food.
In the Central African Republic, the U.N. estimates that 527,000 residents are internally displaced, while another 399,000 have fled into neighboring countries to escape the violence.
Meanwhile, the human suffering in Syria dwarfs these other hot spots. According to the U.N., 10.8 million people there need humanitarian assistance and 6.5 million people are internally displaced.
But the conflict’s size, duration, and complexity hinder organizations’ ability to raise money to help alleviate it.
Mercy Corps, like many international aid organizations, raised more money in three days for Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year than it has during the entire Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, Redmond said.
Gottschalk said people are far less likely to donate money for man-made and political crises than they are for natural disasters. All four of the U.N.’s Level 3 crises are political in nature, making it difficult to drive donors to give, he said.
In a July report, the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) gave high marks to the international response to the Philippines’ typhoon, which also reached a Level 3 designation. But it added that the world’s responses to humanitarian crises could be much better.
"In the Central African Republic and South Sudan, countries with considerable security and logistical challenges, persistent problems remain with the scale up of the U.N. and [international nongovernmental] response, which is characterized by bureaucracy and risk aversion," the report stated.
To fill in the gaps in countries such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic, MSF says it had to massively bolster operations.
Meanwhile, there are myriad conflicts that have yet to reach Level 3, including Gaza and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yemen, which is rarely in the headlines, has 14 million people who need humanitarian assistance, including 10 million who don’t have enough food, Gottschalk said.
As they look at the world, many in the aid community are asking themselves, "How much worse is it going to get?" he said.