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A Week of Disasters in North Africa

The Moroccan Students’ Society mobilizes to help
with earthquake relief efforts

Historically devastating earthquake hits Morocco – causes and aftermath 

Within days of each other, two North African countries were severely hit by disasters affecting thousands of civilians. The magnitude 6.8 earthquake that struck central Morocco on the night of September 8 originated in the High Atlas Mountains, 45 miles southwest of Marrakech, causing extensive damage in nearby rural and urban areas. As of September 15, over 3,000 people have been killed and 5,500 injured in what was the country’s deadliest earthquake in over 60 years. As search and rescue operations continue these numbers are only expected to grow. 

Earthquakes are commonly caused along the line where two tectonic plates move against each other, and in Morocco, earthquakes mostly happen where the African and Eurasian plates meet. Scientists have explained that the earthquake resulted from a geological phenomenon called a “reverse fault”. This phenomenon occurs when tectonic plates collide, causing the Earth’s crust to thicken. The stress along these fault lines can induce earthquakes as rocks abruptly shift to release accumulated stress, which is characteristic of a seismic fault.

The earthquake caused severe damage, rendering thousands homeless, forcing many people to evacuate, and prompting the authorities to declare three days of mourning. South of Marrakesh Al-Haouz was the hardest-hit region, but other provinces – including Ouarzazate, Azilal, Chichaoua, and Taroudant – were also left devastated. Some isolated villages have been destroyed, and rescue teams are struggling to reach others. Government inspectors have informed residents that they must evacuate their homes because the earthquake has rendered them unsafe. Nevertheless, many residents are hesitant to leave because they lack alternative shelter and are afraid of possible aftershocks, leaving hundreds of survivors sleeping in the streets.

Questions about the preparedness of the country

The amount of material destruction caused by the earthquake raises questions about Morocco’s ability to withstand major disasters. Indeed, the earthquake seemed to highlight the vulnerability of a large number of homes to widespread damage, particularly in rural areas. The earthquake has revived a national debate on the strengthening and application of anti-seismic standards. In recent years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has stressed the need to promote “build back better” mechanisms following disasters, in order to mitigate future risks.  

A week after the disaster, the Daily met with Simo Benkirane, the Co-President of the Moroccan Students’ Society (MSS) to discuss the impact of the earthquake and the response that has been organized both on-site and on campus. Simo explained that “the reason villages got destroyed was because the houses were made using traditional methods. A lot of wood and clay. These materials are not resistant, they are not earthquake-proof. That’s the problem.” Compliance with anti-seismic standards was similarly put on the agenda following the February 2023 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, which killed 56,350 people.

Initial response

The focus is now turning to rehousing the survivors and rebuilding villages to respect anti-seismic standards. According to an International Medical Corps situation report, Morocco’s Ministry of Health and Social Protection confirmed that more than 300 tons of medicines and medical devices have been delivered to the Al-Haouz province this week. The national stock is anticipated to meet the needs of those injured at this time. In addition to trauma and health needs, additional areas of support requested include food and water, shelter and non-food items, and mental health and psychosocial support services. Additionally, the report highlights that delivering aid is currently hindered by several factors, including roadblocks resulting from the earthquake, the risk of landslides, and existing infrastructure challenges, particularly in the mountainous terrain. 

Benkirane emphasized the amount of solidarity within the country and the Moroccan government’s response: “The Moroccan people have been very united. I don’t know a single Moroccan who hasn’t been helping in their own way”. He told the Daily that “whether they’re in Morocco or whether they’re outside of Morocco, like us, raising awareness on the issue, everybody is contributing,” and added that “the Moroccan government is helping the people affected. Our king and the government have opened up a huge fund to build back the villages using the proper norms.” 

Geopolitics and politicization of international aid

However, debates have emerged regarding the management of foreign aid. Indeed, the mobilization of aid on a national and international scale was, from the very first days following the earthquake, tainted by a phenomenon of politicization of emergency aid. The Moroccan government has been selective in terms of accepting aid, only allowing support from Spain, the UK, Qatar, and the Emirates, despite numerous offers from governments worldwide. Meanwhile, countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, France, Germany, Italy, and Canada – as well as the United Nations – have all said they are prepared to intervene but are waiting on authorities to respond. There are different explanations for this reluctance from the Moroccan government to accept all foreign aid. One is political and the other is logistical. Some have interpreted the non-recourse to French aid as a reflection of the tensions between the two states. Relations between Morocco and France, a former colonial power, have been tense for several months, over issues of visas for Moroccan nationals, the recognition of Western Sahara, and relations with Algeria. Currently, Morocco doesn’t have an ambassador in France. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 2021 after French President, Emmanuel Macron, tried to get closer to Algeria. 

One one hand, foreign aid can be seen as a tool of foreign politics and as a way for the donor to expand its influence and power. Indeed, it can be used by policymakers to further their foreign policy objectives, as it allows the donor state to assert its military capacities and ability to shape international affairs.  This is especially relevant when taking into consideration the France’s  colonial past. On another hand, the Moroccan government and experts have been sustaining that too high an input of foreign aid can be more of a hindrance and weakens the possibility of efficient coordination. “There are huge logistics issues that accompany the inflow of international aid. In my opinion, having hundreds of countries come and just do whatever they want can cause huge chaos,” said Benkirane. “ Our centralized government is very organized. We know the ins and outs of the affected regions and are dispatching the needed resources as efficiently as possible in such a situation.” 

Student support and engagement

The Daily asked the MSS if there were ways for the students to mobilize in relief efforts and how their society had been organizing their engagement from campus. Their main goal is to be a central “point of communication by raising awareness and trustworthy sources” for students on campus. One of their first actions was to share reliable links that would allow students to get involved in the relief response. Benkirane also mentioned that they are “also working with SSMU and different associations around Montreal to be able to raise donations and gather items of clothing and camping equipment that we can then send back to Morocco.” He added, “we’re also going to have a bake sale to raise money for Libya which has had floods, and Morocco and that’s mostly all that we can do.” This will probably be held next week on campus and will be advertised through their social media platforms. In moments like these “it’s really nice to see that people care and want to help. Even one dollar makes a difference” added the MSS. 

Recurrence of catastrophes: Libyan floods

In addition to earthquakes, climatic catastrophes are becoming increasingly frequent and widespread – as in Libya, where Storm Daniel struck on September 10, causing unprecedented flooding, leaving thousands dead and injured in the Derna region. On Friday, Libyan authorities limited access to the flooded city of Derna,  to make it easier for searchers to dig through the mud for the more than 10,000 people still missing and presumed dead following a disaster that has already claimed more than 11,000 lives. Libya is particularly vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters as it has no unified government, since two rival administrations that are locked in a political standoff following a civil war that began in 2014. Moreover, it is interesting to look at how Libya and Morocco have very different responses to their disasters, and the way in which it reflects the current state of the two countries. While the two countries are geographically close to each other – 2,000 kilometres – there is a stark difference in their ability to respond to the disasters. Indeed, whereas in Morocco people have been mobilized on a large scale in coordination with the central government hours following the earthquake, in Libya international aid was able to reach Derna only two days after the disaster struck. This gap in response between the two countries shows how Libya’s divisions have exacerbated the ongoing disaster. More than a decade of war has weakened infrastructures and state services, and an inability to coordinate, leaving the country dangerously unprepared to respond to this mass-scale humanitarian disaster. Experts say that the near-simultaneous occurrence of these two events in the Mediterranean is symbolic of the major challenges posed by climate change. 

During a UN News Briefing, Martin Griffiths, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations, said that “climate and capacity have collided to cause this terrible tragedy”, acting as “a massive reminder” of climate change and the challenge it poses. 

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