Afghanistan was rocked by its deadliest earthquake in decades on Wednesday when a 5.9 magnitude quake struck the east of the country, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring scores more, according to a regional manager.
The humanitarian disaster comes at a difficult time for the Taliban-ruled country, currently in the throes of a hunger and economic crisis.
The shocks hit at 1:24 a.m. local time Wednesday (4:54 p.m. ET Tuesday) about 46 kilometers (28.5 miles) southwest of the city of Khost, which sits near the country’s border with Pakistan, according to the United States Geological Survey ( USGS).
The quake was recorded at a depth of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), according to the USGS, which designated it at the yellow alert level – indicating a relatively localized impact.
Most of the deaths occurred in Paktika province, in the districts of Giyan, Nika, Barmal and Zirok, according to the state disaster management ministry.
The death toll stands at more than 1,000 and at least 1,500 people have been injured “in Gayan and Barmal districts of Paktika province alone”, Mohammad Amin Hozaifa, head of the Department of information and culture of the province of Paktika.
The official expects the number of casualties to increase as search and effort missions continue.
In neighboring Khost province, 25 people were killed and several others injured, and five people were killed in Nangarhar province, the disaster management authority said.
Photos from Paktika province, just south of Khost province, show houses turned to rubble with only a wall or two still standing amid the rubble and broken roof beams.
Najibullah Sadid, an Afghan water resources management expert, said the quake coincided with heavy monsoon rains in the area – rendering traditional houses, many of which are made of mud and other natural materials, particularly vulnerable to damage.
“The timing of the earthquake (in) the darkness of the night…and the shallow depth of 10 kilometers from its epicenter resulted in a higher number of casualties,” he added.
A team of medics and seven helicopters have been dispatched to the scene to transport the injured to nearby hospitals, the Afghan Defense Ministry said in a tweet on Wednesday.
It comes as nearly half of the country’s population – 20 million people – suffer from acute hunger, according to a United Nations-backed report in May. It’s a situation made worse by the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, which led the United States and its allies to freeze about $7 billion of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and cut off international financing.
The situation has crippled an economy already heavily dependent on aid. Following the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, its economy went into freefall, with the World Bank predicting in April that a “combination of falling incomes and rising prices has led to a severe deterioration household standard of living.
The Taliban held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to organize transport for the injured and material aid for the victims and their families, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said.
Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund convened the meeting at the country’s presidential palace to request all relevant agencies to send emergency relief teams to the affected area, Mujahid said in a tweet.
“Measures have also been taken to provide cash assistance and medical care,” Mujahid said, adding that the agencies were “instructed to use air and ground transport for the delivery of food, clothing, medicine and other necessities and for the transport of the wounded”.
In a tweet on Wednesday, the World Health Organization said its teams were on the ground for emergency response, including providing medicine, trauma services and conducting needs assessments.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif offered condolences and an offer of support in a tweet on Wednesday. “Deeply saddened to learn of the earthquake in Afghanistan which resulted in the loss of innocent lives,” he wrote. “Pakistanis share the grief and pain of their Afghan brothers. Relevant authorities are working to support Afghanistan in this time of need.
India expressed “sympathy and condolences to the victims and their families”, according to a tweet from the spokesperson for India’s External Affairs Ministry on Wednesday.
Pope Francis said he was praying “for those who lost their lives and for their families” during his weekly audience on Wednesday. “I hope that help can be sent there to relieve all the suffering of the dear Afghan people.”
Afghanistan has a long history of earthquakes, many of which occur in the mountainous Hindu Kush region that borders Pakistan.
In 2015, an earthquake that shook parts of South Asia killed more than 300 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
More than 1,000 people died in 2002 after two earthquakes in the Nahrin region in northwest Afghanistan. A powerful earthquake struck the same region in 1998, killing around 4,700 people, according to records from the National Centers for Environmental Information.