GAYAN, Afghanistan — The death toll from a devastating earthquake in Afghanistan continued to rise days after it turned brick and stone houses into rubble, killing 1,150 people and injuring dozens more, according to the latest figures released Friday in state media.
The country of 38 million people was already in a spiral of economic crisis that had plunged millions into deep poverty with more than a million children at risk of severe malnutrition.
Wednesday’s magnitude 6 earthquake that struck overnight while people slept left thousands without shelter and brought into sharp focus the country’s growing needs. Afghanistan remains cut off from the international monetary system, and aid agencies lament having to pay local personnel with hand-delivered bags of cash as countries refuse to deal directly with the Taliban.
Aid organizations such as the local Red Crescent and the World Food Program have stepped in to help the most vulnerable families with food and other emergency needs such as tents and sleeping mats in Paktika Province, the epicenter of the earthquake, and neighboring Khost Province.
Yet residents seemed largely alone to deal with the aftermath, as their new Taliban-led government and the international aid community struggle to get help. The bad mountain roads leading to the affected areas were exacerbated by damage and rain. Villagers have buried their dead and dug through the rubble by hand in search of survivors.
The Taliban director of the state-run Bakhtar News Agency said on Friday the death toll had risen to 1,150 from previous reports of 1,000 dead. Abdul Wahid Rayan said at least 1,600 people were injured.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated the death toll at 770.
It is not clear how the death toll will be reached, given the difficulties in accessing and communicating with the affected villages. Either a grim toll would make the earthquake in Afghanistan the deadliest in two decades.
State media reported that nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. At least 1,000 houses in Gayan district were damaged by the earthquake. Another 800 houses in the Spera district of Khost province were also damaged.
While modern buildings elsewhere withstand earthquakes at magnitude 6 on the Richter scale, Afghanistan’s mudbrick houses and landslide-prone mountains make such earthquakes more dangerous.
The roads in the area are so poorly paved and difficult to navigate that some villages in the Gayan district require an entire day to reach from Kabul, although it is only 175 kilometers (110 miles) away.
In villages in the Gayan district, where Associated Press reporters toured for hours on Thursday, families who had spent the previous rainy night in the open lifted logs from collapsed roofs and pulled stones by hand in search of missing loved ones. Taliban fighters circulated in vehicles in the area, but only a few were seen helping to dig through the rubble.
There was little sign of heavy equipment – only one bulldozer was seen being transported. Ambulances circulated, but little other aid to the living was apparent. A 6-year-old boy in Gayan cried when he said his parents, two sisters and a brother were all dead. He had fled the ruins of his own house and sought shelter with the neighbors.
Many international aid organizations withdrew from Afghanistan when the Taliban took power last August. The survivors scramble to get medical supplies, food and tents to the remote earthquake-stricken area. UN agencies also face a $3 billion funding shortfall for Afghanistan this year.
Germany, Norway and several other countries announced they would send aid for the earthquake, but emphasized that they would only work through UN agencies, not with the Taliban, who so far have not been officially recognized by any government. Nations have called on the Taliban to address human rights issues first, especially the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls.
The International Rescue Committee has emergency teams in the two provinces to provide essential first aid and said it is providing financial support to families who have lost their homes and livelihoods in the earthquake. The organization, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 1988, is calling for an international roadmap to eventually release Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves.
The Taliban’s takeover of the country last year, as the US prepared to withdraw its troops, prompted the Biden administration to freeze the $9.5 billion the Afghan central bank has in US banks, which efforts by the new rulers to pay officials and import goods.
Trucks with food and other supplies came from Pakistan, and planes loaded with humanitarian aid landed from Iran and Qatar. India humanitarian aid and a technical team to the capital, Kabul, to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid. India says its aid will be turned over to a UN agency on the ground and to the Afghan Red Crescent.
In Paktika province, the earthquake shook a region of deep poverty, where residents earn their living in the few fertile areas between the rugged mountains.
There are projections, quoted by the UN and others, that poverty rates could rise to 97% of the population this year and unemployment to 40%.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Islamabad, Pakistan and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.