Afghanistan is located in a seismically active region, and earthquakes pose a significant threat to many parts of the country, including a number of densely populated urban areas. In the last 10 years, more than 7,000 people have lost their lives because of earthquakes in Afghanistan, with an average of 560 fatalities per year. Of the potentially active faults, it is projected that the Chaman fault, the Hari Rud fault, the Central Badakhshan fault and the Darvaz fault present the greatest seismic risk.
Each of these faults is capable of producing 7 or 8 Magnitude earthquakes. However, in seismic regions it is also possible that there are other undiscovered faults that may pose additional risk, as was the case with the Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand.
Hazard maps show that the likelihood of strong shaking is highest in north-eastern Afghanistan and along the corridor adjacent to the Chaman fault system, where there is a 20 per cent chance or higher that within the next 50 years there will be an earthquake which produces shaking reaching intensity VIII (destructive) on the Modified Mercalli Scale.
Of the major cities in Afghanistan, Kabul faces by far the greatest seismic hazard, primarily due to its proximity to the Chaman fault, but also because in recent years Kabul has experienced rapid urbanisation and population growth, leading to unsafe and non-standard construction practices, leaving the city at a high risk of severe impacts from an earthquake.
Jalalabad is in an area of similar seismic risk to Kabul and has historically experienced more large-scale earthquakes than Kabul. The hazard in Mazar-e-Sharif is about half that in Kabul, largely because it is further removed from concentrated sources of seismicity. Hirat lies close to the Hari Rud fault, but because of this fault’s low slip rate, large earthquakes are infrequent. Kandahar, being located in south-eastern Afghanistan, is farther removed from tectonic movements in the northeast and is located well away from the Chaman fault, further decreasing its seismic hazard.
In the planning scenario, a 7.6M earthquake impacts Kabul and 14 other provinces, killing some 4,400 people. The intensity of shaking ranges from VIII (severe) on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale in parts of Kabul, Kapisa and Laghman, to VII (very strong) in Nangarhar, and VI (strong) in Nuristan, Panjsher, Parwan, Logar, Paktya and Maidan Wardak. In this scenario, 7 million people are impacted by the earthquake in the worst affected areas (areas that experience VI shaking and above). Of these 7 million people, an estimated 3 million people are the most vulnerable and in need of humanitarian assistance. This includes 1.8 million people living in urban areas, and 1.2 million in rural areas.
The earthquake causes extensive infrastructure damage in Kabul as well as in Jalalabad. The vast majority of buildings in Kabul, and other Afghan cities, are adobe and masonry; approximately 30 per cent of these could be expected to collapse if expose to severe shaking, and 60 per cent would suffer damage. In the cities there are also a smaller number of engineered or semi-engineered buildings constructed from reinforced concrete, but these are not considered to be seismically sound. The fatality rates associated with the collapse of these concrete buildings are also more significant than with the collapse of adobe 2 or masonry buildings. According to the building field surveys undertaken, an estimated 780,000 houses would be destroyed or badly damaged, leading to substantial displacement and need for the establishment of collective centres, the creation of spontaneous settlements across the country.
With an estimated 60 per cent of Afghanistan prone to landslides, and 7 per cent of housing in urban areas being spontaneous hillside dwellings, it is highly probable that a 7.6M earthquake would cause multiple landslides that would result in significant loss of life.
As well as damage to poorly constructed housing, hospitals and other health facilities, schools and government buildings can expect to experience significant damage, as can other infrastructure, including roads, bridges and water systems within and outside of Kabul. Massive quantities of debris would need to be removed to enable access to affected areas. Landslides would also compound access challenges by blocking transport routes to affected communities, including the main access road between Kabul and Jalalabad. Road blockages will also significantly impact availability of imported staple goods and relief items arriving through the Torkham border crossing. This will have knock on effects in regards to the market availability of foodstuff in affected areas and increase food prices.
Significant damage and destruction of houses would result in large numbers of people being displaced. For the first few weeks after the earthquake, it can be expected that people will be sleeping in the open due to aftershocks, with families gathering wherever they can, but in particular close to government services or military premises to obtain basic assistance and security.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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