14 May 2024

Afghanistan - Earthquakes extend cycle of conflict and disaster displacement

After decades of conflict, the withdrawal of foreign troops and the Taliban’s takeover of the country in 2021 was followed by a significant shift in internal displacement dynamics, with no movements associated with conflict and violence recorded in 2023. This does not mean, however, that the plight of 5.7 million people living in protracted displacement has ended. Their number decreased slightly during the year, but most were still living in a precarious situation and highly vulnerable to disasters.

This became evident in October when a series of high-magnitude earthquakes and aftershocks struck the western province of Herat, triggering 380,000 internal displacements and destroying at least 10,000 homes. Increasing social restrictions meant more women and girls were indoors when the earthquakes hit, which in part explains why they accounted for around 60 per cent of the dead and wounded.

Map of Earthquake intensity in Herat: 380,000 internal displacements by 6.8-magnitude quake and aftershocks, destroying at least 10,000 homes

The earthquakes became the second-largest disaster displacement event since records began in Afghanistan in 2008. They took place against a backdrop of high levels of poverty and vulnerability resulting from decades of conflict, disasters and the lasting impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Herat was already hosting the country’s largest population of displaced people in 2022 when the earthquakes struck, and many of the IDPs surveyed said they had fled both conflict and disasters.

Predominantly rural, the province’s agricultural sector has been severely hit in recent years by recurring disasters, including floods, cold snaps, and drought between 2018 and 2019 and again between 2021 and 2023. These have undermined communities’ resilience, forcing many to abandon their livelihoods and move to informal urban settlements in search of humanitarian assistance. Covid hit between the droughts, affecting IDPs living in crowded camps with only limited water, sanitation and health services.

The increased cost of agricultural inputs resulting from an economic downturn since 2021 has also led many farmers to gradually disengage from their activities and in some cases abandon their land. Others have reduced their livestock count to cope with the deteriorating economic situation. This has fuelled deepening food insecurity, which increased further when funding for food aid was cut significantly in September 2023. Almost 889,000 people were living in acute food insecurity when the earthquakes struck, more than in any other province, but no disaggregated data was available to assess how many were IDPs.

The disaster aggravated the overall humanitarian situation as damage to roads and bridges disrupted the supply of aid. Administrative constraints, including a December 2022 decree banning Afghan women from working in national and international non-governmental organisations, later extended to UN organisations in April 2023, also impeded effective assistance for those displaced.

The damage the earthquakes caused to septic tanks, drainage systems, wells and water pumps worsened the impacts of the previous years’ droughts, leaving IDPs and host communities with ever less access to clean water and sanitation. Some of those who lost their homes also lost their safe water facilities, resulting in heightened risk of contamination and disease.

The onset of the El Niño phenomenon increased the risk of snowfall as winter approached, creating yet another challenge for the health and safety of those still living in the open in makeshift tents. Given the trauma of living through the earthquakes, many people were afraid to return to their homes even if they had not suffered significant damage. Around 900 people were still living in displacement in Herat at the end of the year.

For references and additional information, please see the full report.