Desperate search and rescue operations were underway in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday after an earthquake killed more than 1,000 people, a blow to a country already facing a severe economic and humanitarian crisis.
The 5.9 magnitude tremor struck near the town of Khost on the Pakistani border in the early hours of Wednesday morning. At least 1,500 people were reported injured – but officials warn the death toll is likely to rise as many families were sleeping in ramshackle apartment buildings when the quake hit.
Many houses in the area are made of mud, wood and other materials susceptible to weather damage – and the quake coincided with heavy monsoon rains, increasing the risk of collapse.
Photos from nearby Paktika province, a rural and mountainous region where most deaths have been reported, show homes reduced to rubble. According to the United Nations, around 2,000 houses were said to have been destroyed. Some people spent the night sleeping in makeshift outdoor shelters while rescuers used flashlights to search for survivors.
Medical and rescue workers from across the country are meeting on the ground with the support of some international organizations such as the World Health Organization.
Aid could be limited, however, as many organizations withdrew from the aid-dependent country after the Taliban seized power last August.
The Taliban government has deployed emergency resources, including several helicopters and dozens of ambulances, and has offered compensation to victims’ families.
It has also called for foreign aid, asking Wednesday for “the generous support of all countries, international organizations, individuals and foundations.”
The quake has compounded the problems already plaguing Afghanistan.
Though the economic crisis has loomed for years as a result of conflict and drought, it plunged to new depths after the Taliban takeover, which prompted the United States and its allies to freeze about $7 billion of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and halt international funding.
The move has paralyzed the Afghan economy and plunged many of the 20 million population into a severe hunger crisis. Millions of Afghans are unemployed, government employees have not been paid and food prices have skyrocketed, with some families reportedly so desperate to eat that they are selling their children.
Aid organizations are few and far between, and those that do are thin on the ground. On Wednesday, the WHO said it had mobilized “all resources” from across the country, with teams on the ground providing medicines and emergency support. But, as one WHO official put it, “Resources are stretched here, not just for this region.”
Experts and officials say the most urgent immediate needs include medical supplies and transport for the injured, shelter and supplies for those displaced, food and water, and clothing.
The UN has been distributing medical supplies and deploying mobile health teams to Afghanistan – but warned it has no search and rescue capabilities and that regional neighbors have little capacity to intervene.
The US is no longer present in Afghanistan following the complete withdrawal of its troops and the collapse of the previous US-backed Afghan government. Like almost all other nations, it has no official relationship with the Taliban government.
Turkey is the country best placed to provide assistance, said Ramiz Alakbarov, deputy UN special envoy for Afghanistan. He said the Turkish embassy in Afghanistan is “waiting for the formal request”.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the Turkish Red Crescent, which operates in Afghanistan, has sent humanitarian aid to the victims. On Thursday, a Taliban spokesman said humanitarian aid had also arrived from Qatar, Iran and Pakistan, with flights and trucks carrying items including medicines, tents and tarpaulins.
An estimated $15 million in aid is needed to respond to the disaster, Alakbarov said — a number likely to rise further as information about the situation on the ground comes in.
“Our teams don’t have special equipment to get people out from under the rubble,” Alakbarov said. “This has to rely mainly on the efforts of the de facto authorities, who also have certain limitations in this regard… I have no detailed reports on how well they are positioned to operate and use such machines in these mountainous areas.”
Information, including damage assessments, is limited for now as telecommunications are disrupted in remote areas and poor weather conditions hamper transport, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
“The country is suffering the effects of decades of conflict, protracted severe drought, the impact of other intense climate-related disasters, extreme economic hardship, an ailing health system and system-wide gaps,” the IFRC said on Wednesday, calling for more global support.
“Thus, although the disaster is localized, the scale of the humanitarian needs will be enormous.”