More than 1,000 people have died after a powerful earthquake with a magnitude of at least 6.8 struck Morocco near the city of Marrakesh on Friday evening. It was the largest earthquake of its kind in decades.
The death toll is rising rapidly as rescue workers search towns and villages around the epicenter in the High Atlas Mountains and make their way through the rubble of Marrakech’s old town, about 70 kilometers north. Morocco’s leader, King Mohammed VI, has called on the military to carry out search and rescue operations, and other nations, including France, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, have pledged their support in the operation.
The area near the quake’s epicenter is known for its small, picturesque villages nestled in the mountains, while Marrakesh is an international tourist destination with a history dating back to the Middle Ages. The famous Red Walls that mark the city limits and the Kutubiyya Mosque in the Old City were both damaged by the quake, but the full extent is still unknown.
Many buildings in the old town are hundreds of years old; The Kutubiyya Mosque dates back to the 12th century. Because earthquakes are rare in Morocco, structures are not built to withstand them, as might be the case in cities like San Francisco or Tokyo. Furthermore, according to the United States Geological Survey, the quake occurred just 18 kilometers underground, likely increasing the damage and resulting in a high death toll. “I expect the final death toll will be in the thousands once this is known,” Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, told the Associated Press. “As with any large earthquake, aftershocks are likely, which will result in additional casualties and complicate search and rescue operations.”
Both Marrakesh and the surrounding areas have high population densities, which is likely to have an impact on the number of victims. Although the affected region itself has about 1.8 million residents, parts of Marrakesh are more densely populated than Manhattan, according to a New York Times analysis of data from WorldPop, a project at the University of Southampton in Britain.
Earthquake science has improved in recent decades and knowledge of fault lines and possible earthquake locations is far clearer than in the past, which can help inform policy and preparedness. However, it is still not possible to predict when earthquakes will occur. This makes it all the more important that regions at risk are prepared for the disaster.
This is how Morocco’s government is dealing with the crisis
Morocco does have a prime minister, Aziz Akhannouch, but according to the Moroccan constitution, the king has the final say in state affairs. Any international assistance must come at Mohammed’s invitation.
The monarchy is an important institution for Morocco’s national identity and dates back to the 8th century. Mohammed’s father, Hassan II, ruled for 38 years during a period of post-colonial transition for Morocco and the broader African continent; Although he has a complicated legacy, he was a notable figure on the world stage and maintained friendships with the United States and Israel.
However, Mohammed is often absent from his country, and not on diplomatic trips – he returned to Morocco this spring after extensive trips abroad to France and Gabon and is often seen in the company of German-born Moroccan Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Abu Bakr Azaitar and his brothers. Although they have not been nearly as visible since Mohamed’s return, Moroccan press outlets often denigrate the brothers and express concerns about their influence over the monarch, the Financial Times reported last month.
According to the Associated Press, Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces used helicopters, drones and aircraft in the search and rescue mission; Traveling by land to the affected areas was extremely difficult due to traffic and debris from the quake. Doctors Without Borders announced on Saturday that it would send a team to Morocco and was already coordinating with local authorities.
Mohammed himself has not been seen or heard from since the quake; Even his order to deploy search and rescue forces was passed through the Moroccan army. Although countries including Japan, Israel and Turkey have offered support – and three French regions have even pledged $2 million in relief efforts – it is not clear whether the king has accepted that aid.
Although Morocco is relatively stable compared to neighbors like Libya and Tunisia, it is still grappling with serious economic conflicts – including an agricultural sector suffering from prolonged droughts and a tourism industry still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic recovered, not to mention the crippling inflation that resulted from the war in Ukraine.
Friday evening’s earthquake is reminiscent of the earthquake that struck southern Turkey and parts of northern Syria in February, where inadequate infrastructure also contributed to a high death toll and delayed search and rescue efforts. Although reforms to improve the seismic safety of buildings were introduced in 2011, they have not been implemented uniformly across Morocco’s earthquake-hit areas, the New York Times reported, and quality checks in poorer and rural areas rarely occur.