Aid groups rushed Thursday to reach victims of a powerful earthquake that shook eastern Afghanistan, killing more than 1,000 in an area ravaged by poor infrastructure as the country faces severe economic and hunger crises.
The slow response, exacerbated by international sanctions and decades of mismanagement, has affected people who work in the humanitarian space, such as Obaidullah Baheer, a Transitional Justice lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan. “This is a very patchwork, patchwork solution to a problem that we need to start thinking about in the medium to long term…what do we do when (another disaster) strikes?” he told DailyExpertNews by phone.
The earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale struck early Wednesday morning near the city of Khost near the Pakistani border and the death toll is expected to rise as many of the area’s homes were rendered weak. of wood, mud and other materials that were vulnerable to damage .
Humanitarian agencies are congregating in the area, but its remoteness has complicated rescue efforts.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has successfully sent humanitarian aid and aid to families in Paktika and Khost provinces to cover the needs of about 4,000 people, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at a press conference on Monday. Thursday.
Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said the “priority needs include emergency shelter and non-food items, food aid, health and water and sanitation, as well as hygiene support.”
He added that the World Food Program (WFP) has confirmed that food supplies in the worst-hit province of Paktika will be able to serve at least 14,000.
“At least 18 trucks are en route to the earthquake-affected areas with emergency supplies, including high-energy biscuits and mobile storage units,” said a WFP statement released Thursday.
UNICEF Afghanistan tweeted that they could distribute “hygiene kits, winter kits, emergency kitchen kits for families, tents, blankets, warm clothes and tarpaulin” to affected persons in Paktika and Khost.
The earthquake coincided with heavy monsoon rain and winds between June 20 and 22, which has hampered search efforts and helicopter flights.
As medics and emergency services from across the country try to access the site, aid is expected to be limited as a number of organizations withdrew from the aid-dependent country when the Taliban took power in August last year.
The ones that remain are stretched thin. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had mobilized “all resources” from across the country, with teams on the ground providing medicines and emergency aid. But, as one WHO official put it, “resources are overstretched here, not just for this region.”
The international community’s reluctance to deal with the Taliban and the group’s “very messy bureaucracy where it becomes difficult to get information from one source” has led to a communication gap in the rescue effort, Baheer – who is also the founder from aid group Save Afghans from Hunger – said.
“At the heart of it all is how politics has translated into this communication gap, not just between countries and the Taliban, but also between international aid organizations and the Taliban,” he added.
Baheer gives an example of how he acted as a conduit for information to the WFP and other aid organizations, informing them that the Afghan Ministry of Defense was offering to transfer aid from humanitarian organizations to hard-hit areas.
In the meantime, some people spent the night sleeping in makeshift outdoor shelters, while rescuers searched for survivors with flashlights. The United Nations says an estimated 2,000 homes have been destroyed. Photos from hard-hit Paktika province, where most deaths have been reported, show houses reduced to dust and rubble.
Hsiao-Wei Lee, WFP’s deputy country director in Afghanistan, described the situation on the ground as “very bleak”, with some villages in hard-hit districts “completely decimated or 70% collapsed,” she said.
“There will be months and possibly years of rebuilding,” she said. “The needs are so much greater than just food… For example, it could be shelter, to facilitate the transportation of that food and customs clearance, logistics would be helpful.”
Officials say aid is reaching the affected areas.
According to the official Twitter account of the Afghan Defense Ministry, the government has so far distributed food, tents, clothing and other necessities to the provinces affected by the earthquake. Medical and relief teams deployed by the Afghan government are already present in the earthquake-affected areas, trying to transport the injured by land and air to medical facilities and health centers.
Although Afghanistan’s economic crisis has lurked for years as a result of conflict and drought, it plunged to new depths following the Taliban takeover, which prompted the United States and its allies to use about $7 billion of its foreign reserves. freezing the country and international financing.
The US is no longer present in Afghanistan after the hasty withdrawal of its troops and the collapse of the previous US-backed Afghan government. Like almost all other countries, it has no official relations with the Taliban government.
Sanctions have crippled the Afghan economy and sent many of its 20 million people into a severe hunger crisis. Millions of Afghans are out of work, government employees are unpaid and the price of food has skyrocketed.
Humanitarian aid is excluded from sanctions, but there are obstacles, according to draft comments by Martin Griffiths, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), ahead of a UN Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan.
This includes a high need for funding, Taliban authorities “wanting to play a role in the selection of beneficiaries and channel aid to people on their own priority list”, and the “formal banking system continues to block transfers,” he writes.
This means that “approximately 80% of organizations (who responded to OCHA’s monitoring survey) experience delays in transferring funds, with two-thirds reporting that their international banks continue to refuse transfers. More than 60% of organizations cite a lack of available cash in the country as a programmatic barrier.”
Baheer says sanctions “hurt us so much” that Afghans are struggling to send money to families affected by the earthquake.
“The fact that we barely have a banking system, the fact that we haven’t had any new currencies printed or brought into the country in the last nine to 10 months, our assets have been frozen…these sanctions are not working,” he said. †
He added: “The only sanctions that make moral sense are targeted sanctions against specific individuals rather than punishing an entire country and an entire people.”
While “sanctions have hit much of the country, there is an exemption for humanitarian aid, so we are deploying it to support the most needy,” Mort, of UNICEF, told DailyExpertNews.
The Taliban “doesn’t prevent us from spreading something like that, on the contrary, they enable us,” she added.
Experts and officials say medical care and transportation for the injured, shelter and supplies for the displaced, food and water and clothing are the most urgent immediate needs.
The UN has distributed medical supplies and sent mobile health teams to Afghanistan, but warned they lack search and rescue capabilities.
Baheer told DailyExpertNews on Wednesday that the Taliban could only send six rescue helicopters “because when the United States left most of the planes were out, whether it was Afghan forces or theirs.”
Pakistan has offered to help by opening border crossings in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and allowing injured Afghans to enter the country without a visa for treatment, said Mohammad Ali Saif, a spokesman for the regional government.
“400 injured Afghans have moved to Pakistan for treatment this morning and a flood of people continues, these numbers are expected to rise by the end of the day, Saif told DailyExpertNews.
Pakistan has strictly limited the number of Afghans entering the country through the land border crossing since the Taliban came to power.