Aid agencies and NGOs have appealed to the international community for help but only a handful of countries have publicly offered support, neighboring China and Pakistan are among them.
Men dug through rubble with their bare hands and shovels in western Afghanistan Sunday in desperate attempts to pull victims from the wreckage left by powerful earthquakes that killed at least 2,000 people.
Entire villages were flattened, bodies were trapped under collapsed houses and locals waited for help without even shovels to dig people out.
Living and dead, victims were trapped under rubble, their faces grey with dust. A government spokesman said Sunday that hundreds were still trapped, more than 1,000 hurt and more than 1,300 homes destroyed.
“Most people were shocked ... some couldn’t even talk. But there were others who couldn’t stop crying and shouting,” photographer Omid Haqjoo, who visited four villages Sunday, said.
Saturday’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit a densely populated area near Herat. It was followed by strong aftershocks.
A Taliban government spokesman on Sunday provided the toll that, if confirmed, would make it one of the deadliest earthquakes to strike the country in two decades.
An earthquake that hit eastern Afghanistan in June 2022, striking a rugged, mountainous region, wiped out stone and mud-brick homes and killed at least 1,000 people.
The US Geological Survey said the quake’s epicentre was about 40 kilometres northwest of Herat. It was followed by three very strong aftershocks, measuring magnitude 6.3, 5.9 and 5.5, as well as lesser shocks.
With much of the world wary of dealing directly with the Taliban government and focused on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Afghanistan hasn’t received an immediate global response. Almost 36 hours after the first earthquake hit Herat province, there have been no planes of aid flying in, no specialists.
Who is helping Afghanistan?
The International Rescue Committee warned that the lack of rescue equipment could push up the death toll in western Afghanistan because trapped survivors cannot be freed.
“There’s not much disaster management capacity and what there is can’t cover people on the ground,” said Salma Ben Aissa, the committee’s country director for Afghanistan. “The numbers (of dead) are increasing hour by hour.”
People injured in the quake on Saturday can’t get the treatment they need because of poor medical infrastructure so they are losing their lives. A lack of food, shelter and clean water is increasing the health risks among communities.
Ben Aissa’s colleague, Jawed Niamati, said Herat city is empty. People are sleeping in the open air, on roadsides and in parks, because they fear more quakes. Temperatures drop to 10 degrees Celsius at night, he said.
At least a dozen teams have been scrambled to help with rescue efforts, including from the military and nonprofit organisations like the Red Crescent.
The United Nations migration agency deployed four ambulances with doctors and psychosocial support counsellors to the regional hospital. At least three mobile health teams were on their way to the Zenda Jan district, which is one of the worst-hit areas.
Doctors Without Borders set up five medical tents at Herat Regional Hospital to accommodate up to 80 patients. Authorities have treated more than 300 patients, according to the agency. UNICEF dispatched thousands of supplies, including winter clothes, blankets and tarpaulins as temperatures dropped.
Some aid groups, like the World Food Program, were already on the scene with essential items.
Later Sunday, people from surrounding villages brought equipment to support rescue efforts.
Save the Children said the scale of the damage was horrific. “The numbers affected by this tragedy are truly disturbing – and those numbers will rise as people are still trapped in the rubble of their homes in Herat,” said the aid group's country director for Afghanistan, Arshad Malik. “This is a crisis on top of a crisis. Even before this disaster, children were suffering from a devastating lack of food."
He called for an "urgent injection" of money from the international community.
Neighboring Pakistan said it was in contact with Afghan authorities to get an assessment of the urgent needs.
China's ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Xing, said his government and the country's charitable institutions were ready to provide all kinds of help. “We are in contact with Afghan government aid agencies to provide aid to the needy,” he said on X, formerly known as Twitter.