[On 8 September 2023 a devastating earthquake, the likes of which Morocco has not experienced in a century, struck the High Atlas region of the country. Mouin Rabbani, Editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Brahim El Guabli, a specialist on the region and Co-Editor of Jadaliyya’s Maghreb Page, to get a better understanding of the disaster’s impact and the region where it struck.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What do we know about the human cost and material damage inflicted by the recent earthquake in Morocco?
Brahim El Guabli (BEG): On 8 September Morocco was hit by an unprecedented earthquake that registered 6.8 on the Richter Scale. The American Geological Survey indicated that the region has not experienced an earthquake of this magnitude in over a century. Its strength was such that it was felt as far away as the Lisbon region of Portugal.
As of this writing, the death toll in Morocco is close to 3,000, and the injured number over 5,000. The area hit by the earthquake, including the city of Marrakesh, is home to over a million people. Consisting mostly of villages in remote areas of the Atlas Mountains, the affected region is already vulnerable due to a combination of factors, including the rugged nature of the landscape and the longstanding maldistribution of resources between different parts of Morocco.
Although a statement from the Royal Court indicated 50,000 homes were destroyed by the earthquake, it is reasonable to assume that the actual damage exceeds this number by far. Additionally, when you view images of debris in villages that have been destroyed, you can conclude that areas outside the epicenter were also badly affected.
There are homes that have been entirely destroyed, those that were partially demolished, and structures that sustained minor damage in the form of fissures and cracks. Many of these will not be habitable in the immediate future. In general terms a distinction can be made between villages located at the quake’s epicenter that were entirely destroyed and those that sustained more limited damage. I have spoken to several people who told me that their damaged homes were not included in the official assessments, which means there will be hundreds—if not thousands—of people who will not benefit from state funding earmarked for reconstruction.
The provinces of Ouarzazate, El Haouz, Chichaoua, Taroudant, and Azilal, which together share the Central Atlas, have sustained massive economic damage on account of the disaster. Some estimates calculate the economic loss at ten billion dollars. The High Atlas portion of these provinces is an important center of tourism and eco-tourism in Morocco. Now that the area is devastated, revenues from this industry will decrease.
Additionally, rural residents in this region tend to raise a variety of livestock, including cattle, sheep, donkeys, and chickens, to generate income but also for food and transportation. Many of these animals died in the quake. While much of the conversation has rightly been focused on the loss of human life and property, the loss of animals also has significant impact.
Finally, the damage and destruction incurred by historic buildings and others of cultural significance will affect the entire landscape and socio-cultural makeup of central Morocco, more so if the territory’s cultural distinctiveness is not restored. The entire area has a unique architectural style which, in the words of anthropologist Abdellah Hammoudi, forms the backbone of “an agrarian civilization.” There is a real risk that hasty reconstruction efforts can lead to the loss of Amazigh civilizational heritage, including the toponymy of some places.
MR: Moroccans in the affected areas have criticized the authorities for their disaster response. Is this what one would expect from traumatized and desperate citizens or have preparedness and relief efforts indeed failed to rise to the occasion?
BEG: Within Morocco, responses to the earthquake have varied. We have seen anger directed at the government and local officials for the tardiness of their action, but also expressions of gratitude for support received from ordinary citizens who immediately mobilized to provide assistance. Between remote regions that yearned for rescue and relief in the days after the earthquake, and more accessible areas that were able to receive some help, the inhabitants of the impacted zones have not responded uniformly to the perceived slow response.
We also need to take into account the treacherous terrain of the High Atlas. Even in normal times, let’s say during a snowstorm, access is difficult. The infrastructure is rudimentary, the roads are narrow, and some villages still have dirt roads. If we understand how difficult this makes accessing villages, and we factor in the devastating impact of the earthquake, which ripped up already fragile roads and deposited massive boulders onto already narrow paths, this should give an idea of the conditions under which rescue efforts were being conducted.
This does not mean that the response should not have been more rapid or more efficient. But there are factors beyond our views about the authorities and their management of the response that need to be taken into account. Given these conditions Peter Beaumont, the veteran correspondent of The Guardian, concluded that the authorities’ response “has been reasonably effective” compared to other disasters he has reported.
The region’s geography is one of the reasons the military was mobilized to participate in rescue and relief efforts. It is the only force with the capacity and resources to carry out such a large and complex task, and according to the Ministry of Transport all roads are now once again open.
Next to the official response there has been an outpouring of popular support, in which Moroccans from all walks of life contributed resources for the relief of their fellow citizens in the affected areas. The images of solidarity created a national mood of mutual support which, in a way, represents how Moroccans respond in times of crisis. Indeed, survivors in the earthquake zone immediately mobilized to dig people out of the rubble and save lives while the state’s rescue effort was still being organized. Moroccan citizens in the afflicted areas and throughout the country did not wait for the state to arrive in order to start searching for the missing and provide aid to the survivors. Every village where there were survivors almost immediately became a rescue site, saving a lot of lives that would have been lost had they had waited for professional rescuers to reach their isolated villages.
MR: How do you assess the regional and international responses to these disasters, and to what extent have they been defined by existing agendas and priorities?
BEG: The international response has been splendid. Numerous governments offered assistance and there has also been support from NGOs, like Médecins sans frontières, and other international organizations that are experienced in disaster relief. The question why Morocco accepted aid from Qatar, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Britain, and Spain while not welcoming help from other countries, namely Algeria, France, and the United States, has been asked countless times. While it is clear that Morocco wanted to signal something about its foreign relations in taking such decisions, it is difficult to provide clear explanations for these choices in the absence of official statements. All the conjecture we have been reading and hearing with respect to Morocco’s refusal of aid from certain countries is, in the absence of tangible details, speculation rather than compelling analysis.
I am a strong believer in the idea that disasters can offer opportunities for dialogue, but we will have to wait and see what comes next to gain a better understanding of Morocco’s position. That said, the media’s obsession with this issue almost overshadowed the needs of the victims and diverted attention from the afflicted areas. It felt as though the earthquake hit Paris rather than one of the poorest regions of Morocco.
The international public response has also been overwhelming. For example, I was able to raise USD 89,000 for a GoFundMe campaign I initiated together with Mounia Mnouer of Princeton University and Aomar Boum of UCLA. Social media has helped draw attention to the dire situation on the ground and to mobilize efforts to provide direct assistance to those in need.
We should also view media coverage as a form of global response. Major news outlets dispatched correspondents and had them on the ground almost immediately, and they have been producing reports on the quake’s impact as well as on the cultural history and social conditions of the High Atlas. Reporters I have spoken with went deep into the mountains to get a clear idea of the vulnerable conditions these populations have been confronted with their entire lives.
MR: Do you anticipate that these natural disasters, and what they have revealed about those responsible for relief efforts, will have significant political consequences?
BEG: I personally do not think that this earthquake will have political consequences. King Mohammed VI is the only person who has the power to take major decisions during national emergencies. Although the product of elections, the government cannot take any initiative without the monarch’s consent. None but him have the authority to deploy the army, and it was mobilized within a couple hours of the earthquake. We saw a similar situation play out in the quake that struck El Hoceima in 2004. For this reason, I believe we should focus more on the earthquake’s socio-economic and cultural impact, and the ways in which reconstruction can be approached differently than it has in the past.
The current situation requires care for the injured, rehousing for homeless families, and support for a traumatized population. The devastation is greater than anyone can imagine, on both the landscape and the people. Even the demography of some areas has been permanently altered. In some villages an entire generation of residents has been literally wiped out.
Since the political and the economic are deeply intertwined, a priority is improved investment by the state in the affected regions to address the territorial inequities. The model of territorial management that was pursued until 8 September 2023 can no longer be sustained, and the earthquake demonstrated its obsolescence and inadequacy. The legacy of French colonial administration, which created a “useful Morocco” and a useless one, needs to be dismantled. This policy has for eighty years created better-endowed cities in the richer plain and coastal regions of the country, while leaving the central and south-eastern parts of Morocco impoverished and starved of infrastructure. “Useful Morocco” was made habitable while “useless Morocco” was seen as a site of extraction for raw materials.
Signalling the end of this “useless Morocco” policy begins with work to properly connect and integrate the affected regions into the national road network. Remote villages should no longer be isolated. Whatever national reconstruction initiative the state is going to lead should contain significant investments in infrastructure.
Improved resource allocation, better connections between the villages of the High Atlas and adjacent cities, and a more diligent approach to this vulnerable and historically marginalized region of Morocco would be the most important consequence people want to see. In the wake of this catastrophe, the residents want a development model that helps them join the twenty-first century and reap its benefits.
Amazigh language and culture should be cornerstones of this development strategy. It is high time for the Tamazight language’s integration into any program of cultural preservation and restoration. What could be better than boosting these inhabitants’ morale by making a strong commitment to their language through, for example, road signage in Tamazight, better schools, and a curriculum than fully adopts Tamazight as a language of instruction alongside Arabic and other languages?