Afghanistan Earthquake: Homeless Families face bitter winter

The world has moved on, but on the ground in northern Afghanistan, we still sharply feel the impact of the October 26 earthquake, especially as the cold sinks in and families huddle together in tent shelters.

The earthquake epicenter was in the province of Badakhshan, where Concern works, and also hit our operational areas of Takhar Province. Because we were already there, we were able to respond extremely quickly, repositioning tents and non-food items (like soap and blankets) that were already in the country. We distributed 200 tents and over 300 non-food item kits. We’ve provided a carpet with each tent to make it warmer, and two blankets per family.

But the hard truth? It's not enough. It is very, very cold in the north, even when you have shelter. This week it reached 37 degrees Fahrenheit where I live in Taloqan, the capital of Takhar Province.

To protect against the region's severe winters, the walls of traditional houses are about 1.5 feet thick. Imagine sleeping in a tent, which has walls only a fraction of an inch thick. We who live in houses have our bukharis (wood/sawdust-burning stoves), and it is cold even for us. In some places it has already started snowing. It is miserable.

UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) has estimated that more than 6,000 homes were fully destroyed in the earthquake, and some 129,000 people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Help to survive winter, and to rebuild efficiently

To help those in need, we must take two critical steps. All the houses that were fully destroyed cannot be reconstructed before winter, so we need to give immediate cash grants to allow families to move out of tents and rent someplace through the cold season. We at Concern need to provide for perhaps 250 families through a program like this.

We need to provide training sessions to local families before they rebuild. Our Concern engineer explained to me that in our program areas in Yawan, Badakhshan, we had trained communities on simple construction techniques to make houses earthquake-resistant. The improvements were made by placing a couple of wooden braces in each of the corners (every three feet or so) and by supporting the roof with a wooden plate — a long timber that is laid perpendicular to the roof beams.

Engineer Wais pointed out that one of the damaged houses could have withstood the earthquake if only every second timber used for the roof and for lining the wall had been removed so that the other timber could rest on them.

Saving Homes By Simple Techniques

I was shocked to learn that such simple techniques could have such an impact. If these techniques had been employed earlier, perhaps we would not have lost a single home. And it would have cost them no more than using the same amount of timber slightly differently.

On the way back from the village, I sat in disbelief that so much of that destruction was absolutely avoidable if only some simple and inexpensive techniques had been incorporated into house construction.

I started looking at houses with a different perspective. “Look, they have used a wooden plate!” “Look I see that house has used braces!” ”I see the cracks because there is no wooden brace to arrest the crack….” I am no builder, but Engineer Wais' 10-minute demonstration had brought about such a change in the way I viewed these houses. 

I urged Engineer Wais to put together a simple template, with lots of pictures and simple explanations in Dari and Pashto, which he has already started. I encouraged him to send it to a few engineers from other NGOs to ensure wider agreement on the design, once he completes it.

If we can get funding, I want us to print 10,000-20,000 copies of this booklet and offer it to other NGOs. I also would like us to spread out to villages where we can hold short trainings and demonstrations, so that all skilled workers learn these simple techniques and can rebuild with these concepts in mind.

I have my heart and my soul in this work. We need to help the earthquake victims live in dignity through the winter, until they can rebuild. If we do not recognize that we are all human, what is this work, at the end of the day?


By Concern Afghanistan Country Director Janardhan Rao.