U.N. aid officials said Tuesday that they are racing against time to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of earthquake survivors in western Afghanistan, north of the city of Herat, before winter sets in and people whose houses have been destroyed are exposed to freezing temperatures.
"Most of the people, even inhabitants of Herat, that has almost a million population — most of these people stay outside their homes, especially at night," said Daniel Endres, humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, speaking in Kabul.
"This is a region that is not at all used to earthquakes. Therefore, the type of construction was done in a way that was very fragile." He noted that most of the dwellings were made of mud, which collapsed easily.
"So, you see the roads of Herat are lined with tents and that, of course, requires a huge amount of support of all kinds of shelter materials," he said.
The first of three magnitude 6.3 earthquakes struck Herat province October 7, followed by earthquakes on October 11 and 15.
According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, more than 66,000 people have been affected, with numbers continuing to rise. It says about 1,500 people have died, around 2,000 others are injured and at least 3,700 homes are destroyed, with thousands more severely or moderately damaged.
"So this means, of course, a lot of requirements on the reconstruction," said Endres.
"Another serious issue is, of course, the damage to infrastructure." He said many people now do not have access to clean water and are at risk of "diseases because the water is going to be contaminated."
OCHA launched a Herat Response Plan for $93.6 million Monday to support 114,000 earthquake-affected people over the coming six months.
"There are about 500 villages in Herat province and around 289 villages that have been severely or moderately affected," said Kate Carey, deputy head of the OCHA office, speaking in Kabul.
"Temperatures are beginning to fall … it will get cold very, very quickly and we already have thousands of people who are living in makeshift shelters and also residing in open areas and they remain obviously our priority," she said.
The U.N. children's fund, UNICEF, says women and children comprise 90 percent of the people reportedly killed by the earthquakes. Last week, the agency appealed for $20 million to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance over the coming three months for more than 200,000 people, including 96,000 children, living in the most devastated, vulnerable areas of Herat province.
"Even before the earthquake, these communities were already suffering the effects of conflict and insecurity, migration, drought, displacement, and poverty," said Rushnan Murtaza, acting UNICEF representative in Afghanistan.
He said, "These deprivations have now collided, creating an unprecedented humanitarian emergency for children," which required additional support so children can receive "the health care, protection, and clean water they desperately need."
In hopes of reassuring donors that the money they provide for Afghan relief will be well spent, humanitarian coordinator Endres told journalists in Geneva that the U.N. collaboration with the Taliban, the de-facto authority in Afghanistan, has been positive.
"They have virtually not restricted us in the outreach to the people and doing the assessments. That includes access to women by women," he said. "As you know, especially in the medical field, the work of women is permitted. And so the women are, of course, treated by female medical personnel. And that is happening."
Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, said that the WHO has sent a team of 11 midwives and 10 medical doctors, including one who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology.
"We did this specifically so that there would be women doctors on the ground able to work with women and children specifically because of the restrictive issues," she said.
"A dedicated team of women doctors and midwives have been sent for that very reason."