An earthquake in eastern Afghanistan killed more than 900 people on Wednesday, the Taliban government said, with the toll expected to rise as the disaster compounds an existing economic and humanitarian crisis.
The 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck the eastern provinces of Paktika and Khost, along the Pakistan border. Tremors were felt in both Kabul and Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.
Mawlawi Sharafuddin Muslim, the Taliban’s deputy minister for disaster management, told a press conference in Kabul the death toll had risen to 920 people with 610 injured. Officials and aid agencies said they expected casualties to continue rising as authorities and rescue personnel reached the worst-affected areas.
The earthquake came as Afghanistan struggles through an economic collapse and threatens to overwhelm the Taliban’s already limited ability to govern. With strained resources and a lack of expertise of their own, the Islamist group called on aid agencies to help with the response.
Afghanistan has long suffered from violent earthquakes, but a combination of economic insecurity and conflict has left poor, rural communities ill-prepared to cope.
“In addition to today’s quake, Afghanistan is reeling from the effects of decades of conflict, protracted severe drought, effects of other intense climate-related disasters, extreme economic hardship [and] a battered health system, ”Necephor Mghendi, Afghanistan head for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), wrote on Twitter.
Aid group Islamic Relief said many people were sleeping at the time of the earthquake early on Wednesday and were believed to be trapped under rubble, while roads, power and other infrastructure had been damaged.
Afghanistan has descended into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises since the Islamist group retook power 10 months ago. The aid-dependent economy effectively collapsed after the US, Europe and other countries cut off aid and imposed debilitating sanctions.
Hunger, malnutrition and joblessness have surged since. The IFRC estimates that 70 per cent of households are unable to meet basic needs including food.
While analysts say aid groups have so far been able to prevent mass famine, the World Food Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that 19mn Afghans are facing acute food insecurity – more than half the population.
This has led to an increasingly precarious governing situation for the Taliban, whose government remains largely a pariah. Attempts to rebuild international ties have had limited success, while armed attacks by rival extremist groups have surged in a sign of rising insecurity.
The Taliban have compounded the country’s isolation with a series of repressive measures of the sort that characterized their first stint in power in the 1990s, banning teenage girls from going to school and forcing women to cover their faces in public.