Shock, grief, and uncertainty loom over Morocco as it comes to terms with the huge volume of damage across the country after it was hit by a 6.8 earthquake late last Friday. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press the death toll had reached close to 3,000 and is expected to rise as the window of opportunity to find survivors beneath the rubble narrows.
Women and men, old and young, continued to gather around the heaps of broken masonry to which their houses and villages had been reduced, hoping missing relatives might still be alive. Rescue workers, including foreign teams that were quickly dispatched to Morocco, were racing against time in the hope of finding survivors beneath the remains of shattered buildings.
Friday’s earthquake, the strongest to hit the country in 120 years, is being compared to the 1960 earthquake that demolished almost half of Agadir. The epicentre of the quake was in the Atlas Mountains, about 72 km south of Marrakesh in the largely rural Al-Haouz province.
There is no telling when the rescue work will come to an end: it is expected to last for at least another week given the advanced rescue technology that some international teams are using successfully located survivors beneath the rubble more than a week after Turkey and Syria were hit by an equally devastating earthquake in February.
Members of rescue teams who spoke to the press say one of the problems they face is that access to some affected areas is blocked by debris to the extent that they have to depend on air drops of food packages to sustain themselves.
Some villages, like Tikht, all but vanished under the force of the earthquake. They are places with a significant number of buildings constructed from a traditional mix of stone, timber and a mortar composed of mud. Hundreds of people who survived the quake but lost their houses continue to sleep outdoors overnight, hoping some emergency assistance scheme will eventually provide shelter and other basic necessities.
It is estimated that 30,000 people have been affected by the earthquake and there are fears the number could rise if there are severe aftershocks. One such aftershock was recorded on Sunday, compounding the anxieties of those already made homeless.
In Marrakesh, Morocco’s fourth largest city, parts of the historic medina, a World Heritage Site, including the famous 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, were damaged.
On social media, videos showed damage to parts of the famous red walls that surround the old city and a UNESCO envoy told reporters on site that the damage is likely to be significant.
Marrakesh was founded in the 11th century and is a major tourist attraction. Tourism contributes close to seven per cent of Moroccan GDP.
Authorities say the focus continues to be on rescuing people trapped under the wreckage. The full volume of the destruction and its economic impact will only become clear once the rubble is removed. It has been suggested it could cost Morocco close to eight per cent of its GDP, imposing tough constraints on an already tight budget that will now have to find up to $10 billion for reconstruction.
Morocco has already seen a major fall in economic growth, down from 7.9 per cent in 2021 to 1.2 per cent this year. The country is also struggling with the effects of drought that has compromised its water resources and agricultural schemes.
Morocco, which had been trying to position itself as a successful economic model with over 150 economic zones and a once flourishing wave of direct foreign investments, has received promises of assistance for reconstruction from several Arab Gulf capitals. Arab states, including neighbouring Algeria, have expressed sympathy with Morocco and offered to send aid and rescue teams.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi directed the government and concerned bodies to provide aid and support for Morocco and Libya, which is suffering the aftermath of devastating floods. A military delegation led by Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces Osama Askar arrived in Libya on Tuesday to coordinate the provision of urgent logistical and humanitarian assistance. Three aircraft carrying medical supplies, food, and a team of 25 rescuers equipped for aid operations were sent. A fourth aircraft will be sent to repatriate the injured and deceased.
On Monday, Mediterranean Storm Daniel caused devastating floods in Libya that swept away entire neighbourhoods, destroying homes in coastal towns in the east of the North African nation. According to Libyan news outlets, as many as 2,000 people were feared dead by late Monday and 10,000 remain missing. The disaster added fuel to fears of the impact of climate change on countries east and south of the Mediterranean.
In the Arab media, the earthquake, coming so soon after the quake that damaged large parts of Turkey and Syria, has led to speculation about the changing seismic profile of the east and south Mediterranean region and the impact of global warming.
The US Geological Survey said the earthquake was caused by the movement of the African tectonic plate at its interface with the Eurasian plate. Seismic activity in the region has been caused by the northward convergence of the African plate and the Eurasian plate which began about 50 million years ago and is linked to the closure of the ancient Tethys Sea. The Mediterranean Sea is what remains of the Tethys, a prehistoric ocean.
One question being asked about the earthquake is whether it will trigger aftershocks or seismic events in neighbouring areas. Fears have also been raised over the possibility of tsunamis in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
Gad Al-Qadi, head of the National Institute for Astronomical and Geophysical Research in Egypt, refuted the possibility of the earthquake triggering a tsunami, pointing out that “the earthquake occurred on land in a mountainous area 300 km away from the sea, so there is no indication of any kind for this happening.”
He also stressed that the extent of the damage in Morocco was compounded by the fact “the Marrakesh region is characterised by buildings not constructed in accordance with the seismic code that regulates more recent buildings, and this is especially true in the countryside where many buildings are made of mud bricks.”
Reported by Kamel Abdallah, Haitham Nouri and Sawsan Samy Elawady
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly