For a geographical analysis of disasters: the case of the September 8 earthquake in Morocco


The terrible earthquake that occurred in Morocco on the night of September 8 to 9, 2023 reminds us of the need to carry out a geographic analysis disasters to understand how emergency aid can be deployed. 

The sterile controversy over international aid came to mask the reality of the affected territory and the specificities of the deployment of emergency aid in high mountain areas. Emotion, outbursts of generosity and the incomprehension of complex territorial realities have fueled particularly confused discourse.

Mountains in full transformation

Above all, it is about understanding the accelerated transformation of the impacted territories. The epicenter of the earthquake is located some 70 km south of Marrakech, in the heart of the Moroccan High Atlas, a vast area of ​​several tens of thousands of kilometers always described as poor, remote, forgotten, frozen in an ethnographic present .

Map of intense seismic movements which illustrates the intensity of the tremors.

Far from the colonial iconography that nourishes tourist imaginations today, these regions do not have not been forgotten by the Moroccan authorities and have undergone profound transformations.

Over the last two decades, the Moroccan state has invested heavily in infrastructure that is particularly costly due to the terrain. The region has been equipped with rural roads, drinking water networks, electricity networks, dams, schools, high schools and dispensaries.

The State has supported the development of agriculture which gives pride of place to arboriculture but also rural tourism through the proliferation of lodges and hotels around the Toubkal massif and, since 2008, the Ouirgane dam. The National Initiative for Human Development (INDH) launched in 2005 allowed municipalities to benefit from significant financial support for specific projects such as school transport, ambulances but also the development of numerous cooperatives and associations.

A profound change in habitat

These projects have had complex effects. Firstly, they resulted in gains in agricultural productivity and transformations in farming practices. Highly labor-intensive food crops were replaced by more profitable but much less labor-intensive crops, such as tree growing.

Secondly, the opportunities linked to the development of services, particularly in the field of tourism, have not compensated for these job losses. Quite the contrary: many activities (agencies, transport companies) have moved to Marrakech, which controls tourist flows.

Furthermore, the development of educational establishments has attracted young civil servants from other localities. Fertility, still high at the start of the 2000s, has collapsed to align with European standards while life expectancy has increased significantly due to the fall in infant and maternal mortality due to the increase in dispensaries and emergency evacuation systems.

However, the absence of job prospects darkens the horizons of a now very connected youth. The young men then engage in a professional career marked by very high mobility. Many of them leave secondary school as early as college when they have academic difficulties. They are then hired in the city for very low salaries, often around 120 euros per month for minors, rarely above 300 euros per month for adults (the SMIG in Morocco is set at 300 euros). They must wait until they have a sufficiently stable economic situation to hope to marry. Many of them hope to settle in the city, but others favor multi-activity, because they are deeply attached to their land and to agriculture.

Young women are hit even harder with record unemployment rates. As soon as they stop their studies, 92% of them find themselves unemployed. Families discourage them from going to town, except for the very small minority who have a higher education diploma allowing them to access declared salaried jobs with social security coverage. The overwhelming majority of them do not see that marriage as a horizon for living apart and building a social place. Feeling forgotten, they now marry younger, often against the advice of their parents, hoping to found a home in the city of Amizmiz, Tahanaout or Marrakech.

Consequently, the region is marked by a profound change in its habitat. The historic residences in the heart of fortified villages were gradually abandoned, or preserved as simple sheepfolds or stables. New houses were built, closer to the road and schools. Some villages have emptied of their inhabitants, others have developed. The population was concentrated in small towns in the piedmont, such as Amizmiz, which experienced strong population growth.

The most isolated villages are often home to the elders and especially the elders attached to their homes, a few households having maintained a strong agricultural activity, and young households whose husband who works in the plains does not have sufficient income to support themselves. settle in town. The media have heavily featured these emblematic figures of elderly women living alone or young mothers with many children, shocked and distraught in the face of the disaster. In addition to the iconographic power of the pieta, they also embody a social reality which is that of villages where young men are often absent outside of the harvest.

The development of roads has accelerated mobility and the recomposition of housing and inhabitants. In September, several events come together.

In high mountain areas, households still have significant pastoral practices which take them to altitude, to sheepfolds. It's also the first week back to school. The young teachers came to take their posts. Families with children are located near schools or school bus stops. Middle and high school students have joined boarding schools. But it’s not yet the start of the university year; students are still present in certain localities, as are a certain number of people from these valleys, working elsewhere but coming on vacation to their original village. Finally, many men hesitate between looking for work on construction sites in big cities or waiting for the end of the harvest, according to the promises of fruit trees.

Prior geographic information, essential for the deployment of relief

This description of social practices may seem superfluous but it is essential to understand the complexity of the deployment of relief.

Given the scale of the geographical area affected, to intervene effectively the authorities must have the right information. However, the first estimates reported 55 localities (villages and hamlets, designated by the terms douars and sub-douars) less than 10 km from the epicenter, 652 between 10 and 30 km and a little less than 1 between 200 and 30 km from the epicenter.

Due to the relief, many localities are only accessible from the plains of Marrakech in the north and Taroudant in the south by a few main roads particularly damaged by the earthquake.

To know the extent of the disaster, the authorities relied on the first authority agent, called the moqqadem, who is present in all the villages. Its main mission is to monitor the population. He is generally the only one who knows the reality of the number of people present in the village. He communicates the information to the boss, representative of the authority at the level of several municipalities, who, himself, transmits it to the governor, who coordinates all the security forces.

Morocco therefore has a fairly effective structure for reporting information. Unfortunately, in some villages, the moqqadem is among the victims. The use of new technologies can certainly make it possible to estimate the extent of material damage, but this hardly indicates the number of potential victims, due to the large population flows in September. All these characteristics complicated the location of victims and the allocation of emergency resources.

Added to this complexity was the progression of relief efforts. Even though Morocco has a large number of construction machines, their transportation has proven difficult because the valleys are very deep, with villages scattered on either side. The security forces were faced with the emergency of the first villages at the bottom of the valley, which are often the most populated, while having to clear the roads and tracks to advance, which requires fairly significant technical resources.

This deployment was much more difficult than if it could have been done in a large city. It then results mechanically in congestion effects but also in the inability of certain specialized teams to deploy. It is possible to helicopter rescuers and their dogs, but impossible to bring an excavator in the same time frame.

The authorities therefore made intervention choices in places where there were potentially more victims and, above all, the possibility of developing effective action. In some urban neighborhoods and villages, residents were able to organize among themselves and had sufficient resources, especially if the work did not require the intervention of mechanical excavators or other heavy equipment. The watchword was therefore for residents to act without waiting for potential external help to save precious time.

An effective national deployment, the result of learning from the Covid crisis

Initial estimates were of 18 families in need of emergency assistance. On September 14, authorities estimated that 50 housing units could require work ranging from complete reconstruction to partial reconstruction.

This represents less than half of the annual housing production in Morocco, which was 118 in 620, before the Covid crisis. On a country scale, this situation does not exceed the capacities of the Moroccan authorities, but it requires very strong coordination.

International intervention, in this context, is not a guarantee of effectiveness because it encounters specific problems recognized by the professionals themselves in the field. Language: in the affected area, very few people speak a language other than Moroccan dialect Arabic or tachelhit. Deadlines: on social networks, international organizations always say they are ready to intervene, but in reality, it is different. Deployment rules: in these valleys, land must be set up downstream to deploy a hospital and centralize the equipment, which requires knowledge of the terrain and road infrastructure.

The desire to collaborate and the habit of collaborating are therefore essential. However, only the Spaniards cooperate regularly with the Moroccans, particularly in the fight against fires. Finally, national mobilization has generated unprecedented congestion on certain roads, due to multiple aid convoys that converged from across the country to disaster areas. Ambulances and construction equipment experienced difficulty in circulating, slowing down clearance and evacuation operations and forcing the authorities to prohibit access to certain roads. On September 14, the provincial authorities of Taroudant requested to no longer receive donations. Law enforcement officials have closed access to humanitarian convoys to strategic roads.

In five days, all the roads were cleared, all the injured were treated in field hospitals or in Marrakech, all affected households were installed in tent camps where they received food aid and basic necessities. . Above all, the government announced an emergency compensation protocol as well as a reconstruction protocol.

Helping to rebuild: massive budgetary aid

It clearly appears that Morocco, like many countries, has developed a strong capacity to manage crises, particularly after the Covid-19 crisis. Following the collapse of international solidarity in a few days, many countries understood that the the most effective solution was self-organization. In a context of growing uncertainty due to global warming, it is excellent news to see the emergence of countries able to quickly cope with a catastrophe while others sink into civil wars.

Former colonial powers wish to maintain a humanitarian aura, but the reality is that many lower-income countries have now developed particularly effective intervention capacities on their territory and are even capable of intervening outside their borders. Morocco is one of these new regional actors in emergency humanitarian aid, able to provide support both to spain at Portugal but also to other African countries.

From now on, the question is that of the modalities of reconstruction. The most effective solution will be massive and unconditional budgetary aid to the Moroccan state. Only the State is able to rebuild roads, drinking water and electricity networks, and agricultural infrastructure.

This reconstruction will weigh very heavily on Moroccan public finances, which are currently in a very difficult situation. Inflation, even if it is more moderate than in other countries in the region, reduces the purchasing power of households. The government maintains a fragile balance, mainly thanks to remittances from Moroccans living abroad and tourist currencies. These two windfalls make it possible to reduce the trade deficit, but not the budget deficit.

David Goeury, Geographer, member of the Mediations laboratory / Sciences of links, sciences of places, Sorbonne University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Fernando Astasio Avila

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