KUWAIT CITY – Relief aid officials are hoping wealthy Gulf states and other international donors gathering for a major fundraising drive in Kuwait will step up their giving to help Syrians affected by the country's civil war, warning that conditions are fast deteriorating as refugee numbers grow and prospects for a cease-fire remain elusive.
Humanitarian needs have escalated dramatically since a similar donor conference in the oil-rich Gulf nation last January. The United Nations warns that more than 9 million people need assistance as the conflict grinds on.
"A year ago ... we were talking about a catastrophic disaster that engulfed the entire country with regional implications," said Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. office in charge of coordinating humanitarian affairs. "Now a year after, I'm almost at a loss of words for how big this has become. It really is catastrophic."
Last year's conference in Kuwait raised more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid pledges, including $300 million each promised by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But the needs keep growing. Millions have been uprooted from their homes, many scattered in refugee camps and informal settlements dotting neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
One refugee community, the Zaatari camp in Jordan, has burgeoned into a city with an estimated 120,000 residents living under plastic tents and competing for limited water supplies and other resources.
"The needs on the ground are much higher than the response from the international community," said Mohammad al-Hadid, who heads the Jordanian Red Crescent.
Some 6.5 million people are internally displaced within Syria itself, including at least 270,000 of the country's 540,000 registered Palestine refugees, according to U.N. estimates. It puts the total number of people in need of humanitarian aid at 9.3 million.
The war, now in its third year, has killed more than 130,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the fighting.
The U.N. last month appealed for a staggering $6.5 billion to cover this year's funding needs, its largest-ever funding request for a single crisis. Officials don't expect to raise the entire amount in Kuwait, but "hope at least the amount that we got last time would be pledged," Laerke said.
Rights group Amnesty International on Monday said more needs to be done to end Syrian civilians' suffering, and it urged countries pledging aid follow through on their promises. Only about 70 percent of what was pledged last year has been firmly committed or dispersed so far, according to Laerke.
The Kuwait meeting, chaired by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, takes place a week before peace talks on Syria are due to be held in Switzerland. The U.N. chief on Tuesday visited a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq, where he praised the largely autonomous Kurdish regional government for hosting more than 200,000 refugees on territory it administers.
Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, this week called for a nationwide fundraising campaign, with the official Kuwait News Agency reporting that he "regretted the international community's failure to help the Syrian people."
Among those attending the Kuwait conference is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who along with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced Monday that Syria's government and the main but disputed moderate opposition group fighting against it agreed to let humanitarian aid into some blocked-off parts of the country.
They acknowledged, however, that the chances for any final deal that would allow the warring sides to build a new government remain remote.
A quarter of a million people are estimated to live in besieged parts to Syria that are beyond the reach of aid, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said last month.
In a statement, rights group Human Rights Watch said that the Syrian government had set up obstacles to effective aid distribution, which donors attending the conference should push to remove.
"We desperately need additional funding for humanitarian aid to Syria," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at. "But donors should keep in mind that the human cost of this crisis has been increased exponentially by Syria's policy of deliberately obstructing aid."
Associated Press journalist Dalton Bennett contributed reporting.
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at https://twitter.com/adamschreck