Resilience, Peace and Security

IFRC sounds the alarm on Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis following major earthquakes

An IFRC aid worker give water to a child in Afghanistan.

"It was extremely traumatic because life turned upside down within a moment," said Alexander Matheou, IFRC Regional Director for Asia Pacific. Image: IFRC/Meer Abdullah Rasikh

Spencer Feingold
Digital Editor, Public Engagement, World Economic Forum
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Humanitarian Action

  • A series of earthquakes hit Afghanistan in October 2023.
  • International organizations and humanitarian groups issued urgent calls for funding and deployed aid workers.
  • The earthquakes exacerbated the chronic humanitarian crisis in the impacted regions.

Last month, Afghanistan was hit by a series of devastating earthquakes that exacerbated the country’s already significant humanitarian crisis.

The earthquakes—which struck the western provinces of Herat, Badghis and Farah—impacted over 150,000 people and killed more than 1,000, according to United Nations estimates. Tens of thousands of homes were also destroyed or severely damaged.

In response, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) reiterated its existing appeal for 120 million Swiss francs to support humanitarian work in the country and sent a team to assess the needs in the affected areas.

Alexander Matheou, IFRC’s Regional Director for Asia Pacific, was one of the officials who visited the impacted communities. In the following question-and-answer, Matheou provides further insights into the situation in Afghanistan.

How did the earthquakes impact local communities?

“On the fault line itself, where many villages are located, everything was destroyed. Everything was flattened—there was not a single standing house.

“For the people who live there, it was extremely traumatic because life turned upside down within a moment. And there were mostly women and children at home around 11 o’clock in the morning on 7 October when the first earthquake struck. At that moment they were preparing lunch and therefore women and children have been disproportionately affected in terms of numbers of casualties.”


What are the most immediate needs for affected people?

“The number of villages affected is around 500 and some of those are totally destroyed. So the need for the basics of survival—water, food and shelter—is absolutely critical.

“There is an important effort to try to make sure those basics are supplied, but shelter is perhaps the most complicated to provide because it needs to be provided very quickly before winter arrives. There needs to be winterised shelter options that can withstand storms and can handle a severe winter—and, as soon as possible, there needs to be permanent shelter options.”

How have the earthquakes impacted Afghanistan’s existing humanitarian crisis?

“Relative to wider humanitarian issues in the country, this is a localised event, albeit a serious one. The affected villages are very poor. The people have minimal assets and fragile livelihoods based on subsistence agriculture. The earthquakes have destroyed those assets and those livelihoods. On top of that, there are severe psychological traumas from living through the events and from the tragic personal losses.

“Elsewhere in the country, people remain in very vulnerable situations. There has been a cumulative effect of decades of conflict and frequent displacements as well as a lack of investment in healthcare, education facilities and employment opportunities. Unemployment is high and the few income earners find themselves looking after large, extended families. When that support network breaks or employment is lost, destitution becomes a reality for many people.”

Image: IFRC/Meer Abdullah Rasikh

How can governments and the private sector help mitigate the crises in the long term?

“Each crisis in the country requires different investments and responses. The communities affected by the earthquakes, for instance, are in situations of extreme need where immediate humanitarian assistance to ensure the basics of survival is required. This is not an easy situation, but there are humanitarian agencies that can help provide aid. And whether the money comes from governments or the private sectors, all funding is critical.

“For the country at large, though, it is more complicated. You can’t approach the challenges of chronic poverty, unemployment and destitution through humanitarian aid alone. Take, for example, the case of a female-headed household. These families will be chronically vulnerable until someone in the household is able to have a job and can support the family long term. Short term aid in the form of food or cash is really not the answer.

“For governments and the private sector, you need a longer term commitment in order to create sustainable economic recovery at a household level. One of the challenges we face in Afghanistan is the emphasis on short term relief to address social and economic problems that require a more developmental approach. There needs to be a reset that sees international investment adapted to chronic vulnerability with long term solutions in mind. Primarily, household economic regeneration.

“Moreover, we need to be able to sustain interest in crises even if they are politically unpopular and move off the headlines. If we don’t, the crises just come back into headlines further down the line for all the wrong reasons. Good humanitarian and development assistance is a moral obligation, but it is also a risk mitigation strategy. We need one for Afghanistan, that puts the people of Afghanistan first.”

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