Seismic Activity in Afghanistan

Afghanistan, a country located in South-Central Asia with around 39.2 million inhabitants, is highly prone to powerful and continual natural hazards such as flooding, earthquakes, avalanches, landslides, and droughts. Moreover, the country faces significant impacts from climate change as it poses a threat to its natural resources, which the majority of Afghans depend upon for their livelihoods1.

The country’s low level of socio-economic development makes it extremely vulnerable to disasters, resulting in frequent loss of lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure damage. According to the World Bank, since 1980 disasters caused by natural hazards have affected 9 million people and caused over 20,000 fatalities in Afghanistan1. The most frequent natural hazard is flooding, causing average annual damages of $54 million2.

The key natural hazard statistics for 1980-2020 for Afghanistan and the average annual natural hazard occurrence for 1980-2020 are available here.

Natural hazards are worsening the vulnerability and poverty in Afghanistan, where the poorest households experience natural hazard events almost twice as frequently as the wealthiest households2. The affected areas are often some of the poorest in the country with simple mud and brick homes, with most people earning a living from small farms or rearing cattle2.

Mountainous part of Afghanistan
Picture 1: Mountainous part of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is located in a tectonically active region of the world. Each year it is struck by moderate to strong earthquakes, some of them causing massive damage and many fatalities. The earthquake hazard is especially high in the northeastern region of Afghanistan, particularly along the borders with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. 

Let’s have a look at five of the latest earthquakes in Afghanistan that had a significant impact on the country:

  • February 1998, Takhar: The earthquake in the remote northeastern province of Takhar killed at least 2,300 people, with some estimates ranging as high as 4,000.
  • May 1998, Takhar: Another tremor of magnitude 6.6 in the same region killed 4,700.
  • March 2002, Hindu Kush: Twin earthquakes in the Hindu Kush killed a total of 1,100.
  • October 2015, Hindu Kush: A magnitude 7.5 earthquake, one of the most powerful in Afghanistan’s recorded history, killed a total of 399 people in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan and India.
  • June 2022, Kabuk: A magnitude 5.9 earthquake killed more than 1,000 people, and many more were injured or became homeless.

Historically, earthquakes caused the most fatalities in Afghanistan. Since 1980 more than 10,000 people have been killed due to earthquakes2 and more than 13700 since 19503. In addition, over 250,000 people have been affected by earthquakes2. The World Bank also reports that 5 million students would be exposed to danger in school buildings if an earthquake occurred during school time2. However, retrofitting schools for earthquakes throughout Afghanistan could reduce potential economic losses by 60 %, and reduce fatalities by 90 %2.

Average yearly damages from earthquakes are estimated at $80 million2. The World Bank also reports that a major earthquake event in Kabul Province, which serves as Afghanistan's political, cultural, and economic center with a population of more than 5 million, is expected to cause approximately 6,500 deaths and over $500 million in damages2. Kabul has the highest average estimated damage of all regions in Afghanistan, amounting to $17 million per year due to the concentration of assets and population located in the province2

It is important to note that earthquakes also frequently cause large landslides in mountainous regions, causing further damage and loss of lives.

Consequences of 2015 earthquake in Afghanistan
Picture 2: Consequences of the 2015 earthquake in Afghanistan.

For example, in October 2015, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake in the Hindu Kush mountains killed 115 people, injured over 58,000, and caused more than 35,000 people to become homeless. In the same area in March 2002, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake caused at least 1,100 fatalities and affected over 100,000 people2.

One of the latest and most destructive earthquakes in Afghanistan occurred on 21 June 2022 in Paktika Province. A magnitude 5.9 earthquake occurred at a depth of 10 km, killing more than 1100 people and leaving many more homeless. It is the deadliest earthquake in two decades in Afghanistan and a major challenge for the Taliban, the Islamist movement that regained power last year after the Western-backed government collapsed.

The disaster caused by the earthquake was compounded by hunger and economic crises, increasing the daily problems already plaguing Afghanistan. Though the economic crisis, the result of conflict and drought, has been looming for years, it plunged to new depths after the Taliban takeover, which prompted the United States and its allies to freeze about $7 billion of the country's foreign reserves and to cut off international funding4.

The move has crippled the Afghan economy and sent many of its 20 million people into a severe hunger crisis. Millions of Afghans don’t have jobs, employees aren’t getting paid, and the price of food has heightened, with reports of some families so desperate to eat that they have resorted to selling their children4.

Kids in Afghanistan
Picture 3: Kids in Afghanistan.

The earthquake struck areas that were already suffering the effects of heavy rain, causing rockfalls and mudslides that hampered rescue efforts4.

Alakbarov, the UN Secretary General's Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, even reported that: “the government sadly is under sanctions so it is financially unable to assist the people to the extent that is needed.” He stated, that an estimated $15 million of aid would be needed to respond to the earthquake damage4

Afghanistan’s leaders are also trying their best to solve the situation as soon as possible. For example, the acting Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan held an emergency cabinet meeting and set aside 100 million afghanis ($1.1 million) to help the victims. The families of those killed would receive 100,000 afghanis ($1,116) each and the injured would get 50,000 afghanis each5.

More than 24 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, up from about 18.4 million last year, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report last month. More than 70% of Afghan families don’t have enough money to buy food and other essentials, the study added. The United Nations has warned that more than half of the country’s 40 million people are facing acute hunger, and a million children could die of starvation5.

Afghanistan's seismicity
Picture 4: Afghanistan's seismicity.

Sources:
1) World Bank. Afghanistan: Disaster Risk Management & Resilience Program. Accessed on 07-Jul-2022. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/afghanistan-disaster-risk-management-and-resilience-program
2) World Bank. 2017. Disaster Risk Profile Afghanistan. Accessed on 07-Jul-2022. Available at: https://www.gfdrr.org/sites/default/files/afghanistan_low_FINAL.pdf
3) World Data. Earthquakes in Afghanistan. Accessed on 13-Jul-2022. Available at: https://www.worlddata.info/asia/afghanistan/earthquakes.php
4) Yeung, Jessie. 2022. Afghanistan Reels From Deadly Earthquake as Crisis Hit Country Struggles for Aid. Accessed on 07-Jul-2022. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/22/asia/afghanistan-earthquake-aid-rescue-search-intl-hnk/index.html
5) Najafizada, Eltaf. 2022. Worst Natural Disaster in Years Kills 1,000 in Afghanistan. Accessed on 07-Jul-2022. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-22/powerful-earthquake-kills-at-least-280-people-in-afghanistan#xj4y7vzkg

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