Desperate search and rescue operations were carried out in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday following an earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people, a severe blow to a country already facing a dire economic and humanitarian crisis.
The 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck early Wednesday near the city of Khost, on the border with Pakistan. At least 1,500 people have been reported injured, but authorities warn the death toll is likely to rise as many families were sleeping in flimsy housing structures when the quake struck.
Many houses in the area are made of mud, wood and other materials vulnerable to weather damage, and the earthquake coincided with heavy monsoon rains, increasing the danger of collapse.
Photos from nearby Paktika province, a rural and mountainous region where most of the deaths were reported, show houses reduced to rubble. Some 2,000 houses are believed to have been destroyed, according to the United Nations. Some people spent the night sleeping in makeshift shelters in the open, while rescuers searched for survivors with flashlights.
Doctors and emergency personnel from all over the country are arriving at the site, with the assistance of some international agencies such as the World Health Organization.
However, the aid may be limited 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 the families of the victims.
He has also appealed for outside help, asking for “the generous support of all countries, international organizations, individuals and foundations” on Wednesday.
The earthquake has compounded the problems already plaguing Afghanistan.
Although the economic crisis has been brewing for years, as a result of conflict and drought, it sank to new depths after the Taliban seized power, prompting the United States and its allies to freeze around $7 billion of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and cut off international financing.
The move has crippled the Afghan economy and sent many of its 20 million people into a dire crisis of hunger. Millions of Afghans are out of work, government employees have not been paid and the price of food has skyrocketed, with reports of some families so desperate for food that they have resorted to selling their children.
There are few aid agencies left, and the ones that do are drying up. 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 pressing immediate needs include medical care and transportation for the injured, shelter and supplies for the displaced, food, water and clothing.
The UN has distributed medical supplies and sent mobile health teams to Afghanistan, but warned that it has no search-and-rescue capabilities, and regional neighbors have little capacity to intervene.
The United States no longer has a presence 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 relations with the Taliban government.
Turkey is the country most capable of providing assistance, said Ramiz Alakbarov, UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan. He said the Turkish embassy in Afghanistan was “waiting for the formal request.”
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the Turkish Red Crescent Society, which operates in Afghanistan, had sent humanitarian aid for 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 medicine, tents and tarpaulins.
An estimated $15 million in aid is needed to respond to the disaster, Alakbarov said, a figure that will likely continue to rise as information about the situation on the ground leaks out.
“Our teams don’t have specific equipment to pull people out from under the rubble,” Alakbarov said. “This has to depend mainly on the efforts of the de facto authorities, who also have certain limitations in that regard… I don’t have the detailed reports of how well positioned they are to operate and deploy that machinery in these mountainous areas.”
Information, including damage assessment, is limited for now, with telecommunications disrupted in remote areas and poor weather conditions making transportation difficult, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
“The country is recovering from the effects of decades of conflict, severe and prolonged drought, the effects of other intense climate-related disasters, extreme economic hardship, a battered health system and system-wide gaps,” the IFRC said. on Wednesday, calling for more global support.
“So even if the disaster is localized, the scale of the humanitarian needs will be enormous.”