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EFSAS Commentary

The many man-made crises across the globe should not detract from the urgent need for assistance to earthquake-hit Afghans


Whether it is Ukraine or the Middle-East, where pitched battles are raging today, or indeed the South China Sea, which has been on a near-perpetual boil for quite some time and could erupt at any given time, the world of today appears to bear a remarkable and unenviable proclivity towards strife and violence. So encompassing appears to be the interest in human beings slaughtering other human beings that a major natural disaster in which over 3000 people have lost their lives hardly finds mention in mainstream news coverage. The pair of devastating 6.3-magnitude earthquakes that reverberated through western Afghanistan last Saturday killed more than 2,400 Afghans and injured tens of thousands more. Several aftershocks have occurred since the first quakes, and a new 6.3 magnitude earthquake, followed by two aftershocks of 5 and 4.1 magnitude, again hit Herat province on 11 October. These have added both to the death toll and to the challenges being faced in rescue and relief efforts.

Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, as it lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. In June 2022, a powerful earthquake had also struck the mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan, flattening stone and mud-brick homes. The quakes of the past week, whose epicenter lay about 40 kilometers northwest of the city of Herat that is located near Afghanistan’s western border with Iran, left entire villages destroyed. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that most of the casualties were women and children. Relief and rescue efforts have been hampered by crumbling infrastructure in Afghanistan after decades of war. Foreign aid, which once formed the backbone of the economy, has dried up since the Taliban took over, as has the interest of major world powers in what is happening in Afghanistan.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the United Nations (UN) informed earlier this week that “To date, it is estimated 12,110 people (1,730 families) have been affected by the earthquake across five districts of Herat Province — Gulran (95 families), Injil (150 families), Khosan (60 families), Kushk (Robat-e-Sangai) (30 families) and Zindajan (1,395 families). The number of affected households is expected to rise as assessments are continuing in Gulran, Injil, Khosan and Kushk districts. The epicentre of the earthquake – Zindajan district – is the worst-affected area with 1,294 deaths, 1,688 injuries and 100 percent of homes destroyed. A further 485 people (191 men and 294 women) are reported to be missing”.

Describing the aftermath, Akhtar Mohammad Makoii wrote in The Guardian on 9 October that “Survivors of a series of powerful earthquakes that struck western Afghanistan on Saturday have spent a second night sleeping amid the rubble of demolished villages as they search for loved ones using shovels. The death toll is approaching 3,000, according to senior Taliban officials. In the regional capital of Herat city people slept in public parks and streets, fearing further tremors… Rescuers said they had found a further 350 bodies late on Sunday after officials previously put the death toll at 2,445. Health workers said they were overwhelmed. ‘Vans filled with dead bodies are arriving here each minute’, said a medic at Herat hospital. ‘We are struggling with the very high number of injured people. I have not counted dead bodies. Our morgue is out of capacity’”.

Janan Sayeeq, spokesman for the Taliban’s Ministry of Disasters, had earlier said in a message to Reuters that the toll had risen to 2,445 dead, but he revised down the number of injured to around 2,000. He had previously said that 9,240 people had been injured. Sayeeq also said that 1,320 houses had been damaged or destroyed, and that 10 rescue teams were active in the earthquake-affected area. Death tolls in Afghanistan often rise when information comes in from more remote parts of the country. Aid workers in Herat told Al Jazeera that the casualty figures were actually much higher than was being stated. Necephor Mghendi, head of delegation at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), explained – “There are always discrepancies when issuing numbers for an event of this magnitude since verification can be challenging. But we can with some certainty say the numbers will increase dramatically as we rescue those still trapped”.

Suhail Shaheen, the head of the Taliban political office in Qatar, said in a message to the media that food, drinking water, medicine, clothes and tents were urgently needed for rescue and relief. A Herat health department official who identified himself as Dr. Danish informed that more than 200 of the dead had been brought to various hospitals, with most of them being women and children. Images on social media showed that beds had been set up outside the main hospital in Herat to receive the swell of victims, and Dr. Danish said that bodies had been “taken to several places - military bases, hospitals”. There are a total of 202 public health facilities in Herat province, one of which is the major regional hospital where most casualties had been taken, the WHO said in a report. The vast majority of the facilities are smaller basic health centers, and logistical challenges were hindering operations, particularly in remote areas, the WHO elaborated. “While search and rescue operations remain ongoing, casualties in these areas have not yet been fully identified”, it added.

A Taliban official told The Guardian that “People are in devastating conditions in remote places, they need food, clothes and shelter. They were already very poor people and have nothing left now. We have concerns that there may be additional casualties in that area as well. Our teams are currently en route to provide assistance to those affected regions”. The Taliban official acknowledged that some villages were being reached on Monday for the first time since the quake. He added, “The rescue operation is still in progress. Forces from the defence ministry arrived in the area this morning and local residents are actively assisting with the operation. There are many people under the rubble and areas we have not reached yet. At least 20 villages are completely flattened with people still under the rubble”.

Amnesty International (AI) conveyed its condolences to the families that had lost loved ones in the devastating earthquakes, and its regional researcher for South Asia, Zaman Sultani, said on 9 October that the Taliban authorities must ensure that rescue and relief efforts are carried out without discrimination and in a manner that is compliant with international human rights standards. He stressed that the “People in Afghanistan are already suffering from the impacts of the acute economic crisis and several years of conflict. With the winter months ahead, Amnesty International calls on the de facto (Taliban) authorities and the international community to immediately mobilize resources to support access to housing, adequate food, potable water, safe sanitation, and healthcare as thousands of families face an uncertain future with their homes destroyed by the earthquake. The de-facto authorities must also guarantee safe and unrestricted access to the affected regions for humanitarian agencies”. Sultani further underlined that “Amnesty International calls on the Taliban, de facto authorities to attend to the immediate and essentials needs of the affected communities and ensure that rescue and relief efforts are carried out without discrimination and in a manner that is compliant with international human rights standards. It is critical that all assistance meets the needs of the most at-risks groups who often face compounded challenges in crisis situations, including women, children, older persons, and people with disabilities”.

Despite the scale of the tragedy, there has been little international support or aid directed towards Afghanistan which, under Taliban rule, finds itself politically isolated. The Taliban has also not helped its own cause vis-à-vis international aid organizations by banning women from working for the UN and for Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Afghanistan was already facing a humanitarian crisis due to a significant reduction in foreign aid from Western countries since the Taliban takeover in 2021. Emergency and healthcare services had been particularly affected. Afghanistan's healthcare system, reliant almost entirely on foreign aid, has faced crippling cuts in the two years since the Taliban took over. As recently as in August this year, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had said that it was likely to end its financial support for 25 Afghan hospitals because of funding constraints. Experts have rightly assessed that the many competing global humanitarian crises of recent times have also caused donors to pull back on financial support to Afghanistan.

Despite that, and the mounting challenges that included frequent aftershocks, the rescue workers and volunteers that have remained in Afghanistan have been working around the clock to try to dig out survivors and bodies from the ruins of the villages that were worst affected. A WHO official told Al Jazeera that “Search and rescue operations remain ongoing, and the exact numbers of casualties and houses, premises, destroyed are still not fully confirmed. The geographic challenges in remote areas and continuous aftershocks have hindered the operations”. Mghendi added that “The rescue workers are using everyday items to dig out victims. They don’t have sophisticated equipment and that is slowing down the effort”. Local organizations and philanthropists have also stepped in to mobilize humanitarian support for the survivors.

UN agencies have tried to step up support, deploying teams to assess the damage and assist ongoing humanitarian efforts. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is supplying emergency food assistance to the affected communities, while the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has dispatched medical teams to support hospitals and help treat the wounded. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has brought in blankets and shelters, potable water and is providing psychosocial support services.

The European Union (EU), Australia, Japan, Iran and Turkey were among countries that pledged humanitarian support for the Afghan people. The EU’s Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, said, “The recent earthquake in Afghanistan comes to add suffering to a population which was already facing a dire humanitarian situation. The EU will continue supporting the Afghan people, mobilising the different tools we have at our disposal. This aid package, worth €3.5 million, will bring much needed relief to the victims of this devastating disaster”.

Announcing the Australian Government’s decision to provide $1 million, Pat Conroy, Minister for International Development and the Pacific, said that “This earthquake has exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where almost 30 million people are already in desperate need. We are working closely with our humanitarian partners who have initiated relief efforts, deploying medical and trauma support to regional hospitals, as well as providing emergency shelter, supplies and food assistance to affected areas”. Japan said it would provide emergency relief goods such as tents and blankets through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Among the most immediate needs in the coming weeks will be to find shelter for those people who have lost everything. As Mghendi noted, “Winter is less than two months away. Exposing people to sub-zero temperatures is a recipe for other health tragedies, so we’re racing against time to ensure that people have assistance not only for their immediate needs but also to cope for the coming winter”. Noor Ahmad Islamjar, the governor of Herat province that is home to more than 3 million people and has been hit by a years-long drought that has crippled many agricultural communities, echoed this when he said, “With winter approaching, the affected areas will soon experience extremely cold conditions. Many families not only have lost their homes but also their main breadwinners. They are in urgent need of immediate aid and suitable shelters”.

In yet more terrible news for a highly vulnerable and already suffering section of Afghanistan’s population, UNICEF has said that more than 90% of those who died in this past week’s earthquakes were women and children. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) added that most of the severely injured were also believed to be women and children. It explained, “Most of those who died were women and children because they were in their houses while men were out to work”.

Witnessing first-hand the dire state of the earthquake victims caused Rebecca Phwitiko, UNICEF’s Communications Officer in Afghanistan, to emphatically urge the international community “not to forget the children of Afghanistan”, but all indicators suggest that for most Afghans, especially its women and children, a long and difficult road to recovery lies ahead.