A intense earthquake with a magnitude of at least 6.8 struck Morocco near the city of Marrakesh on Friday night, killing more than 2,100 people, including four French citizens. It was the country’s deadliest earthquake in decades. According to the US Geological Survey, a tremor of magnitude 3.9, presumably an aftershock, occurred Sunday morning.
The death toll is expected to rise as rescue workers investigate the towns and villages surrounding the quake’s epicenter in the High Atlas Mountains and make their way through the rubble of the old city of Marrakesh, located approximately 100 kilometers to the north. According to state broadcaster Al Aoula, 1,404 persons remain in critical condition in addition to the dead. According to the New York Times, King Mohammed VI of Morocco has ordered the military to conduct search and rescue operations. Other nations, including France, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, have pledged their support for the operation. However, some rescue teams have complained that the government approval process is too slow, as time to find survivors is rapidly dwindling. According to Reuters, Morocco has officially accepted assistance from the Spanish government, which has dispatched 86 emergency personnel and eight sniffer canines to the affected area. Additionally, Britain and Qatar have deployed teams.
According to an Italian volunteer whose small team arrived on Saturday, King Mohammad’s absence from efforts to stabilize the situation and provide support and guidance is beginning to hinder search and rescue operations. Marco Abate told international news agency, “There’s nothing here.” “The day after an earthquake in Italy, a information center with food and beverages, medicines and a field infirmary are established. Many individuals reside on the streets.”
Marrakesh is an international tourist destination with a history dating back to the Middle Ages, whereas the region near the epicenter of the earthquake is noted for its small, picturesque mountain villages. Both the renowned red walls that mark the old city’s boundary and the Kutubiyya mosque in the old city have been damaged by the earthquake, but the extent of the damage is still unknown.
The Kutubiyya mosque was built in the 12th century, making it one of the oldest structures in the ancient city. Due to the rarity of earthquakes in Morocco, buildings are not constructed to withstand them as they might be in San Francisco or Tokyo. According to the US Geological Survey, the depth of the earthquake was only 26 kilometres, which likely exacerbated the damage and portended a high mortality toll.
Both Marrakesh and its environs have a high population density, which will likely affect the number of casualties. The impacted region itself has a population of around 1.8 million, but parts of Marrakesh are more densely populated than Manhattan, according to a New York Times analysis of data from World Pop, a project from the University of Southampton in Britain.
In recent decades, the science of earthquakes has advanced, and our understanding of fault lines and potential seismic sites is much clearer than it was in the past, which can inform policy and preparation. However, it remains impossible to predict when earthquakes will occur, making it all the more crucial that vulnerable regions are prepared to withstand the calamity.
Rumors in Air Morocco’s government is handling the crisis
Morocco does have a prime minister, Aziz Akhannouch, but according to the country’s constitution, the king has the ultimate say on matters of state. Any international assistance must be invited by Mohammed.
The monarchy has been an integral part of Morocco’s national identity since the eighth century. Hassan II, Mohammad’s father, ruled for 38 years during a period of post-colonial transition in Morocco and the African continent as a whole. Despite his complicated legacy, he was a notable presence on the international stage and fostered alliances with the United States and Israel.
Mohammed, however, is frequently absent from his country, and not for diplomatic reasons; he returned to Morocco this spring after prolonged trips to France and Gabon, and is frequently seen in the company of Abu Bakr Azaitar and his brothers, a German-born Moroccan Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter. The Financial Times reported last month that Moroccan press outlets frequently disparage the brothers and express concern about their influence over the monarch, despite the fact that they have not been nearly as visible since Mohammad’s return.
According to the Guardian, the Royal Armed Forces of Morocco have deployed helicopters, drones, and aeroplanes for the search and rescue mission; travel by land to affected areas has been made exceedingly difficult by traffic and debris from the earthquake. Saturday, Medicines Sans Frontières announced that it would dispatch a team to Morocco and that coordination with local authorities had already begun. As of Saturday night, “The [Moroccan] government is deploying its own response to the earthquake,” according to Nathalie Fustier, the UN Resident Coordinator in Morocco.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, Moroccans have been queuing up to donate blood, but King Mohammad has not been seen or heard from; even his order to deploy forces for search and rescue was relayed through the Moroccan Army. Even though Japan, Israel, and Turkey have offered assistance, and three French regions have pledged $2 million for relief efforts, it is unclear whether the monarch has accepted this assistance. CNN reports that he has asked mosques across the country to conduct funeral prayers for the deceased at noon on Sunday.
Although Morocco is relatively stable compared to its neighbors such as Libya and Tunisia, it still faces severe economic challenges, such as an agricultural sector afflicted by prolonged droughts and a tourism industry still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as crippling inflation due to the conflict in Ukraine.
Similar to the tremor that struck southern Turkey and parts of northern Syria in February, when inadequate infrastructure contributed to the high number of casualties and delayed search and rescue efforts, Friday night’s quake resembles that event. Although reforms to increase the earthquake resistance of buildings were introduced in 2011, they have not been adopted uniformly in all of Morocco’s earthquake zones, according to The New York Times, and quality checks are infrequent in poorer and rural areas.