Afghanistan: fragile economy hobbled by colossal tanker truck inferno

Ordinary Afghans pay the price for a catastrophic fire near the border with Iran

epa09012338 A man surveys the scene of a fire at Islam Qala Border near Iran, in Herat, Afghanistan, 14 February 2021. A fire erupted near the Iranian border in Islam qala area, disrupting power supplies and causing millions of dollars of damage. At least  500 vehicles exploded in a massive blaze at the Afghanistan-Iranian border on 13 February after a fuel tanker there exploded provincial officials told Afghanistan's TOLO News.  EPA/JALIL REZAYEE
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A colossal blaze at Islam Qala near the border between Afghanistan and Iran engulfed hundreds of oil tanker trucks, killing seven people and injuring about 60 others.

This fire was a result of the recklessness of the officials. The government has no control at the border

It also caused tremendous economic damage.

Some reports suggest the fire was started by an explosion in the parking area of the trade border. It spread to hundreds of other vehicles and was clearly visible on satellite imagery.

Some witnesses told The National that gunfire was the cause of the blaze.

However, because of a lack of emergency centres and resources, officials from either side of the border were unable to contain the blaze quickly, resulting in damage to nearly 1,000 trucks carrying imports to Afghanistan, a member of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment told The National.

Khan Jan Alkozai accompanied a joint task force of businessmen and parliamentarians to investigate the fire. He said the government's mismanagement and widespread corruption was the root cause.

"This fire was a result of the recklessness of the officials. The government has no control at the border. There is no infrastructure and there is a lot of corruption," he said.

The financial costs of the blaze were immediately felt in local markets across the country after a steep increase in the price of fuel and essential commodities.

“I can say with certainty that the price of basic commodities has increased by 25 per cent, particularly fuel prices,” said Mr Alkozai.

He compared the disorganisation of the parking and customs area at the border to Pul-e-Charkhi, a notoriously badly run prison in Afghanistan.

He said there was "a grave for every container" and that such a tragedy was inevitable.

The National observed similar sharp price increases in many parts of Kabul, with the price of petrol reaching 115 Afghan afghanis per litre, or $1.50, from the government-regulated cost of 54 afghanis per litre.

"The gas prices differ in each neighbourhood. This morning the shop outside my house was selling for 75 afghanis per litre, but now it's risen to 95 Afghan afghanis," Ghulam Sakhi, a Kabul resident, told The National on Friday.

He said a relative from another part of the city bought petrol at 110 afghanis per litre.

“How is this allowed? At this rate we won’t be able afford gas for heat. Imagine if it were to snow tomorrow,” he said.

Closer to the site of the blaze, in Herat city, prices of essential commodities, most of which are imported from Iran, have increased sharply.

"Everything that is imported from Iran got expensive," Mohammad Usman, a 37-year-old shopkeeper from the city told The National.

“We have also been told that nothing will be imported from Iran for another 15 days. Things will get even more expensive.

“Everything is a lot more expensive now and poor people like us will suffer.”

Mr Usman said he had so far resisted the urge to increase his prices but would be forced to if the government was unable to provide support.

Mr Alkozai, speaking on behalf of affected businesses, urged the government to speed up reforms.

“Everyone is badly affected, but it’s harder for small businesses," he said.

"I spoke to a fresh fruit and vegetable business owner and he told me he had borrowed $50,000 to run this business and now everything had gone up in flames. Unlike bigger businesses who might be able to bounce back, this man was ruined."

Maxar's WorldView-3 satellite shows a close up view of Islam Qala cross station in Afghanistan's western Herat province and the border with Iran and destroyed tanker trucks there, February 17, 2021. Satellite image (copyright) 2021 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. DO NOT OBSCURE LOGO.

The government began an investigation into the fire to determine the extent of the damage, under the aegis of Vice President Amrullah Saleh.

"Officials from the Ministry of Finance, Industry and Commerce have presented a plan to rebuild Islam Qala customs border," the presidential palace said on Wednesday.

“It will expand to include a new customs area in the border areas of Zinda Jan or Injil districts”.

Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh said the government did not have the capacity to address such emergencies and called for a new civil safety law to be drafted.

A special donation account will be created to help compensate for the damage and provide firefighting services for Islam Qala customs, the presidential office said.

But Mr Alkozai said it was not a sufficient response.

“The president says that he has to beg for donations from the international community to support the country," he said.

"I call him to not beg but rather focus on protecting the wealth we already have in our pockets in the form of local businesses."