Afghanistan earthquake: damaged roads and flooding pose challenge to emergency response

The Taliban have appealed for help after deadliest quake in decades

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Afghan authorities and international aid groups are struggling to reach remote areas of the country hit by an earthquake that killed at least 1,000 people, officials said on Thursday.

Poor communication, damaged roads and flooding from before the earthquake were hampering the emergency response, they said,

The 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck early on Wednesday about 160 kilometres south-east of Afghanistan's capital Kabul, in arid mountains dotted with small settlements near the border with Pakistan.

The town of Gayan, close to the epicentre, sustained widespread damage, with most of its mud-walled buildings damaged or completely destroyed.

"It's a very hilly and mountainous area, very prone to earthquakes and landslides and the homes are made of clay or mud not built to withstand an earthquake of this size," Anita Dullard, spokeswoman and regional media adviser of the Asia Pacific at the International Committee of the Red Cross, told The National on Thursday.

"In some places, whole families have lost their lives under a home that has collapsed, others have escaped and have lost their homes or entire villages have been destroyed."

Mohammad Ismail Muawiyah, spokesman for the senior Taliban military commander in hardest-hit Paktika province, told Reuters that poor telephone networks made the rescue operation difficult.

"We can't reach the area, the networks are too weak, we are trying to get updates," he said.

Ms Dullard said:the ICRC was "providing medical supplies and supporting hospitals that are responding to the efforts and partnering with the Afghan Red Crescent, which is providing blankets, cooking kits and food", in a response she said was expected to take "weeks or months".

She said the number of victims was "very likely to increase" due to the remoteness of the areas hit and the difficulty for those injured to reach healthcare facilities.

The Taliban government has called on the international community for help, after what was the country's deadliest earthquake in decades.

"The government is working within its capabilities," senior Taliban official Anas Haqqani wrote on Twitter.

"We hope that the international community and aid agencies will also help our people in this dire situation."

In Paktika province, about 50 kilometres south-west of the city of Khost, at least 1,600 people were injured.

The UN said a lack of machinery was hampering attempts to find survivors.

"We believe that nearly 2,000 homes are destroyed," said the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov.

At a media briefing at the UN's headquarters in New York, Mr Alakbarov via videolink from Kabul said the number of people displaced would be much higher.

"The average size of an Afghan family is at least seven, eight people," he said.

Sometimes several families live in one house, he said.

Mr Alakbarov said Afghanistan's "de facto authorities" had sent more than 50 ambulances and up to five helicopters to the province and provided some cash assistance to families of the deceased.

But the UN official suggested a lack of diggers was affecting relief efforts.

The UN said it did not have search and rescue capabilities in Afghanistan, with Turkey "best positioned" to provide it.

"We spoke about it with the embassy of Turkey here on the ground and they're waiting for the formal request," Mr Alakbarov said.

"We will be able to make such request only after the discussion with the de facto authorities and based on what is the reality on the ground."

Doubts over Taliban's ability to help

Mr Alakbarov said the UN had already sounded out countries in the region to see "if they would be willing and available to deploy such capacity".

"Our teams do not have specific equipment to take people from under the rubble," he said. "This has to rely mostly on the efforts of the de facto authorities, which also has certain limitations in that respect."

Mr Alakbarov said it was unclear how well-positioned the Taliban were to operate and send their teams to the mountainous areas hit by the earthquake.

The UN has shipped about 10 tonnes of essential medical supplies to the region and sent 20 health teams, he said.

He said a rapid assessment of the situation was being conducted and at least $15 million was urgently required — a figure that looks set to increase.

The Japanese government announced plans to provide assistance to Afghanistan, a government representative said on Thursday.

Deputy chief Cabinet secretary Seiji Kihara said the Japanese government was co-ordinating moves to "provide necessary support promptly", as well as assessing the situation to understand local needs.

An ambulance transports victims of the earthquake in Paktika province to hospital. EPA

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter that eight lorries of food and other necessities from Pakistan arrived in Paktika.

He said on Thursday that two planes of humanitarian aid from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived.

The US said it would look for ways to help, including through potential talks with the Taliban.

Referring to the US Agency for International Development, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said: "President Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAID and other federal government partners to assess US response options to help those most affected."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was in touch with humanitarian groups active in Afghanistan that receive support from Washington.

"US humanitarian partners are already responding, including by sending medical teams to help people affected and we are assessing other response options," he said.

The US has engaged in talks but refused to recognise the Taliban government, in the past saying it wants to see progress on American priorities, including the treatment of women.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US was open to discussion with the Taliban but was unaware of any immediate requests by the Taliban government.

"I imagine the humanitarian response to the earthquake will be a topic of conversation between US officials and Taliban officials in the coming days," Mr Price said.

Updated: June 23, 2022, 1:27 PM
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