Recent events in the East have proven devastating in terms of human lives lost and communities destroyed. Two enormous cataclysmic events have shaken the globe: the earthquakes in Morocco and the floods in Libya.
Morocco, located in the Maghreb Region of North Africa, is occasionally subject to earthquakes caused by the African and Eurasian plates meeting. However, as with other tectonic plates, the area is also made up of microplates. These are small, mostly rigid areas of the lithosphere (the outermost crust of the earth) that are affected by larger tectonic movements. A collision between the African and Eurasian plates is much more likely to affect surrounding areas, such as Tangiers. But, on the odd occasion, another type of tectonic movement can set off the microplates and cause damage further from the fault line.
This happened along the High Atlas Mountains, 71km from Marrakesh and near the town of Oukaïmedene, one of the worst affected areas in the earthquake that struck the nation on the 9th of September. A reverse fault occurred with the Morocco and Iberia microplates, both part of the larger African tectonic plate, where one rock slipped over the other, causing the fault. The strength of the earthquake, at a 6.8 magnitude, coupled with the shallow quake depth of 18.5km and the proximity of surrounding civilised areas, have led to widespread devastation. This was followed later on by an aftershock of 5.3 magnitude. Compare that with Christchurch’s 6.3 magnitude in 2011, at a very shallow depth of 5km, and you’ll see a roughly similar quake intensity.
Earthquakes are not unprecedented in Morocco, although rarer than in areas closer to the main fault. A similar quake struck in 1960, with over 13,000 reported casualties, while a 6.4 magnitude quake in 2004, much more fortunately positioned, killed 638. Another 6.3 earthquake also struck in 2016.
However, Morocco’s recent quake has reached a heady death toll of almost 3,000, with those injured leading in the 5,600 range. Of course, Morocco has a far more concentrated population than the Southland city, which partly explains the high death toll. Marrakech is perhaps comparable to Auckland — by the 2014 census standards, the city held nearly 930,000.
But the numbers alone don’t account for the entire flattening of cities, homes and buildings. Unfortunately, in terms of earthquakes, Moroccan building practices are, by and large, fairly traditional. Many homes along the High Atlas Mountains are constructed using stone, wood and raw earth, which offer great natural heat regulation but little stability in an earthquake. Without foundational support, the bricks crumble into dust, resulting in the collapse of entire buildings.
During the Christchurch earthquakes, most buildings held, even if they ‘slid’ against the silt landslide. The largest danger posed was from falling masonry or unsecured furnishings. By comparison, mud-constructed homes and buildings were incredibly vulnerable to damage, while reinforced concrete fares a lot better, even in the exact epicentre of the quake. Fifty thousand houses have partially or fully collapsed due to the Moroccan earthquake, leaving thousands trapped or buried under the rubble.
The Moroccan government is currently being criticised for its slow response to the event and for refusing outside help due to political differences. The slow aid has been excruciating in a country already struck by drought and high commodity prices. Some have waited days for mobilised military and civilian support while waiting for running water and electricity to return.
In this author’s opinion, the best way to help is to reach out to Doctors Without Borders with a donation. This is a charity that I have been donating to for some time and has, so far, been able to slip across the border to administer aid far more readily than other outfits. You can learn more about the program and give charitably through this link.
Of an equally devastating nature has been the recent floods in Libya, which have caused an estimated 11,000-20,000 casualties. The total is still under debate as so many are still missing during the rescue efforts.
The flood was a direct result of Storm Daniel, which began around the 10th of September, with strong winds reaching a high of 70-80km/h. This occurred alongside rainfalls averaging 150-240mm and rising as high as 414.1mm. The heightened moisture in the clouds, which began the tropical storm, is thought to be caused by the ocean's surface temperature. Above 26℃, the high sea temperature, clashing with the air above, produces storm clouds of an unpredictable and violent nature. It’s most likely that these storms directly result from climate change and the rising global temperature.
The brutal torrential rains and storms, however, were just the catalyst for the primary disaster which struck the city of Derna on the 11th of September. The city, with a population of 90,000, is supported mainly by the Wadi Derna River, which runs through the region. Two damns provide hydroelectric power to the city and surrounding area. The bursting of these damns caused waves which rose to 7km, sweeping through the city and laying waste to buildings, bridges and houses.
Since the Wadi Derna River regularly floods, the damns have been a continual threat to the city, as their poor condition and low height offer little protection during a flood. Constructed in the 1970s and only last given a maintenance check in 2002, the damns have crumbled and weakened structurally over the years until the most recent storm destroyed what remained. The risk posed to Derna had been raised to officials for decades but was tactfully ignored due to the high cost of repairs. Large amounts of soil erosion surrounding the area and the low levels of vegetation have also increased the risk and severity of flooding.
Aerial photographs of the region show a completely swamped city, with many still trapped. However, as the storm moves on, the greatest risk is now the stagnant water running through Derna. With so many bodies submerged, the contaminated water will likely give rise to disease, putting the surviving populations in the area at further risk.
As with Morocco, organised efforts to rescue citizens of Derna and the surrounding townships have been mismanaged and slow to arrive. W.H.O. (the World Health Organization) has been able to provide some relief, arriving 48 hours after the emergency. However, international relief efforts are limited to rescue crews and aid convoys, thanks to military intervention. The biggest challenge now is establishing communication with other rescue parties to estimate the full extent of the damage better.
Again, if you’re interested or able to help support the crisis in Libya, Doctors Without Borders is one of the few organisations with more or less unrestricted access to militarised areas such as Libya. You can donate to them by following the link.
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