International aid groups in Afghanistan are scrambling to send help to survivors of an earthquake which has left more than 2,000 people dead and many more injured in a war-ravaged nation already stricken by an economic crisis.
The 6.3 magnitude quake struck on Saturday 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Herat city in the western Herat province – the third largest in Afghanistan.
It’s one of the deadliest quakes to hit Afghanistan in recent years – last June, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake in the eastern Paktika and Khost provinces bordering Pakistan, killed more than a thousand people.
Images shared by aid and rescue teams on the ground showed massive heaps of debris and rubble after buildings collapsed.
People could be seen digging in the rubble to try to find survivors as others gathered in the streets to avoid being hit by debris during aftershocks.
“The situation is worse than we imagined with people in devastated villages still desperately trying to rescue survivors from under the rubble with their bare hands,” said Thamindri de Silva, national director at World Vision Afghanistan.
Reinforcement teams from the capital Kabul had arrived to help but there was only one hospital and it was “at full stretch with serious cases being transferred to other private facilities.”
“We are responding with everything we have. People need urgent medical care, water, food, shelter and help to stay safe,” de Silva added.
Mark Calder, World Vision Afghanistan’s advocacy lead, told CNN that the latest earthquake was “yet another devastating episode” for Afghans following decades of conflict, successive droughts and a collapsed economy.”
Funding from the international community, Calder added, “has been inadequate.”
“Organizations like ours are able to provide relief and help recovery but without commitment from international governments and donors, more will fall into humanitarian need, displacement will increase and lives will be lost,” he said.
“The world must not look away from Afghanistan now.”
‘A crisis on top of a crisis’
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Sunday put the number killed at 2,053 people, with more 1,240 people hurt and 1,320 houses completely or partially destroyed. But there are fears the toll could rise further.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Sunday expressed solidarity and called on the international community to “come together and support Afghans impacted by the earthquake – many of whom were already in need before this crisis,” he added.
UN agencies and partners have stepped up support and emergency operations following the earthquake on Saturday – deploying more teams on the ground to join ongoing humanitarian efforts.
“We are coordinating with the de facto authorities to swiftly assess needs and provide emergency assistance,” said spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric.
UNICEF, the UN’s children’s fund, has dispatched 10,000 hygiene kits, 5,000 family kits, 1,500 sets of winter clothes and blankets, 1,000 tarpaulins, and basic household items to ongoing humanitarian efforts.
Teams are also conducting additional assessments on the ground and are providing emergency drugs and tents for overburdened health clinics.
“This is by far the worst earthquake Afghanistan has endured in many years,” Siddig Ibrahim, UNICEF Afghanistan’s Chief of Field Office, told CNN.
Lack of water is also a serious challenge, Ibrahim added, with women and children being the most disproportionately affected.
“Afghanistan is home to one of the world’s worst humanitarian and child rights crises,” he said. “The international community should not, and cannot, look away from children in Afghanistan, especially now, when help is needed most.”
Save the Children said the scale of the damage in Herat was “horrific” and anticipates the death toll will rise as bodies are pulled from the rubble.
“This is a crisis on top of a crisis,” said Save the Children’s Afghanistan director Arshad Malik. “Even before this disaster, Afghan children were already suffering from a devastating lack of food.”
“We’ve been scaling up our response to support the increasing number of children in need, delivering health, nutrition, education, child protection, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene, and food security and livelihoods support … but (international) donors must provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance.”
“Without an urgent injection of money, existing humanitarian programs will be impacted as already overstretched funding is strained further.”
Afghanistan has long been one of Asia’s poorest countries and has been ravaged by conflict for decades.
The Taliban’s takeover further isolated Afghanistan from the rest of the world and led to Washington and allies cutting off international funding – crippling an economy already heavily dependent on aid.
Last week the World Bank warned that two thirds of Afghan families currently faced “significant challenges in maintaining their livelihoods” – making it harder for Afghans to recover from earthquakes.
International aid groups have said their ability to respond to calls during major disasters has been heavily impacted by the Taliban’s takeover and called for more urgent global aid – but so far only a handful of countries have publicly offered support.
“Even before this earthquake, with recent floods and instability within the country, over 29 million people in Afghanistan were in need of humanitarian assistance,” said IRC director Salma Ben Assia.
“The earthquake has further exacerbated the situation of already vulnerable communities and upcoming harsh winter conditions spell disaster for the welfare of those that have become displaced, especially for women and children who are most at risk of exploitation and abuse in their displacement.”
“Thousands are now without homes or shelter – they have lost everything,” added Arshad Malik from Save the Children.
“The international community cannot turn its backs on children and families in Herat who need urgent help.”
With previous reporting by Masoud Popalzai.