The 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck in the early hours of Wednesday near the town of Khost near the Pakistani border. At least 1,500 people have been injured, but authorities warn the toll is likely to rise as many families were sleeping in flimsy accommodation when the quake struck.
Many homes in the area are made of mud, wood and other materials vulnerable to weather damage – and the quake coincided with heavy monsoon rains, adding to the danger of collapse.
Photos from neighboring Paktika province, a rural and mountainous area where most of the deaths have been reported, show houses reduced to rubble. Around 2,000 homes were reportedly destroyed, according to the United Nations. Some people slept overnight in makeshift outdoor shelters as rescuers searched by flashlight for survivors.
Doctors and emergency personnel from across the country are converging on the site, with the help of some international agencies such as the World Health Organization.
However, aid may be limited as many organizations pulled out of the aid-dependent country after the Taliban seized power last August.
The Taliban government deployed emergency resources, including several helicopters and dozens of ambulances, and offered compensation to the families of the victims.
She also called for foreign aid, pleading on Wednesday for “the generous support of all countries, international organizations, individuals and foundations.”
Limited international aid
The earthquake has compounded the problems already plaguing Afghanistan.
Although the economic crisis has been looming for years, the result of conflict and drought, it plunged to new depths after the Taliban takeover, which prompted the United States and its allies to freeze an estimated $7 billion of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and cut off international financing.
There are few aid agencies left, and those that do are exhausted. On Wednesday, the WHO said it had mobilized “all resources” across the country, with teams on the ground providing medicine and emergency aid. But, as one WHO official put it, “resources are overstretched here, not just for this region.”
According to experts and officials, the most urgent immediate needs include medical treatment and transport for the injured, shelter and supplies for the displaced, food and water, and clothing.
The UN distributed medical supplies and sent mobile health teams to Afghanistan, but warned it lacked search and rescue capabilities and neighbors in the region had few means to intervene.
The United States no longer has a presence in Afghanistan after 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 best able to provide assistance, said Ramiz Alakbarov, UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan. He said the Turkish embassy in Afghanistan was “awaiting the official request”.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the Turkish Red Crescent Society, which operates in Afghanistan, had 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 medicine, tents and tarpaulins.
An estimated $15 million in aid is needed to respond to the disaster, Alakbarov said – a figure that is likely to continue to rise as information on the situation on the ground circulates.
“Our teams don’t have specific equipment to get people out of the rubble,” Alakbarov said. “It must rely mainly on the efforts of the de facto authorities, who also have certain limitations in this regard…I don’t have detailed reports on their position to operate and deploy such machines in these mountainous areas.”
According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), information, including damage assessments, is limited at this time, with telecommunications down in remote areas and poor weather hampering transportation.
“The country is reeling from the effects of decades of conflict, a prolonged severe drought, the effects of other intense climate-related disasters, extreme economic hardship, a poor health system and gaps in system-wide,” the IFRC said on Wednesday, calling for more comprehensive support.
“Therefore, even if the disaster is localized, the scale of the humanitarian needs will be enormous.”