Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

North Africa’s Vulnerable Groups Bear the Brunt of Natural Disasters

North Africa’s natural disasters affected mostly vulnerable groups and women, and it is most pressing to address its socio-economic aftermath.

North Africa’s Vulnerable Groups
A man rides his donkey next to the rubble in the earthquake-hit village of Imi N’Tala, in central Morocco. FADEL SENNA / AFP

Ali Noureddeen

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Two days following the catastrophic earthquake that struck the Atlas Mountains region of Morocco in September 2023, a devastating flood engulfed the city of Derna in Libya. Torrential rains, coupled with inadequate public management, led to the failure of two dams, resulting in extensive flooding throughout the city.

While the earthquake claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people, as reported by the Moroccan Ministry of Health, the flood-related casualties far surpassed that number with an estimated toll of nearly 20,000 individuals, as indicated by Libyan authorities. Consequently, Derna suffered a grievous loss, amounting to 8 per cent of its total population, and a quarter of the city’s neighborhoods lay in ruins in the wake of this humanitarian disaster.

The parallels between these two tragedies extended beyond the staggering loss of life and the widespread destruction of residential areas and infrastructure. These disasters shared commonalities in their economic and social repercussions, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable segments of society, particularly impoverished communities, ethnic minorities, women, children and foreign laborers.

As a result, these events are anticipated to have enduring consequences for the livelihoods of these vulnerable groups, even for those who survived the flood or earthquake.

The Effects on Morocco’s Impoverished

The earthquake inflicted significant damage In Morocco, with Marrakesh, a city marked by high poverty rates in its suburbs, bearing the brunt of the devastation.

The primary issue in these neighborhoods was the vulnerability of the old structures and residential facilities, constructed with bricks ill-equipped to withstand seismic forces. This factor accounted for the widespread destruction, particularly in the city’s historic and ancient alleys. Another pressing concern was the narrow streets within the historical districts, impeding the timely arrival of large rescue vehicles and bulldozers for extracting people from the rubble.

Beyond the immediate human and material losses in these aged communities, it became evident that marginalized groups within the city would experience lasting economic repercussions due to the earthquake. Marrakesh heavily relies on tourism, primarily drawing visitors to its historical buildings, monuments, and heritage sites.

Consequently, the earthquake constitutes a major crisis for economic activity in the city, affecting job opportunities for marginalized groups. The heritage neighborhoods and historical monuments suffered significant damage, undermining the city’s tourism-dependent economy.

It’s worth noting that tourism plays a vital role in Morocco’s overall economy, with Marrakesh and its surroundings being a major contributor, typically accounting for more than 10 per cent of the country’s GDP.

In May 2023, Morocco was optimistic about the resurgence of foreign visitors to levels preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling remote mountainous regions to generate job opportunities. However, the earthquake eroded these economic gains and presented substantial challenges to the income of impoverished communities, dependent on tourism-related revenues, in the Maghreb region.

Regarding material losses, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates earthquake-related damages in Morocco to reach $10 billion, encompassing the destruction of villages, neighborhoods and residential complexes. Currently, Morocco faces the challenge of concentrated damage in the impoverished rural areas where residents lack the financial means for rapid reconstruction of their homes.

In response to the earthquake, Morocco has allocated a budget of $12 billion to address infrastructure and economic recovery in the affected regions over the next five years. This substantial financial commitment is expected to limit the country’s capacity to provide direct social assistance programs originally intended for vulnerable groups, as an alternative to programs supporting the prices of essential commodities.

Derna: Poverty, Modest Housing and Foreign Workers

Derna’s modest neighborhoods were severely impacted by the flooding, highlighting a culmination of issues. The flooding can be attributed to the deficiencies in the current urban planning, fragile construction and the absence of modern warning systems to alert residents about impending floods.

Furthermore, the degradation of essential infrastructure, such as the dams meant to control torrential waters, aggravated the disaster. Overcrowding and the lack of green spaces around residential areas also hindered the soil’s capacity to absorb rainwater and maintain soil stability, leading to erosion.

Foreign workers, in particular, bore the brunt of the flood’s consequences. Their subpar living conditions and involuntary residence in deteriorating housing made them especially vulnerable. It’s worth noting that a significant portion of these foreign workers were engaged in low-wage, temporary employment, often as part of their preparations for illegal migration to Europe. According to Libyan authorities, around 10 per cent of the missing and deceased individuals in the floods are comprised of non-Libyans, including over 250 Egyptians, 276 Sudanese and 110 Syrians.

The plight of foreign workers extended beyond their high casualty rate. Following the floods, these individuals struggled with the loss of local support networks in Libya that could have provided them with alternative shelter options. Additionally, they faced difficulties in communicating with their families in their home countries and lacked safe means of returning. Most significantly, these group lost their jobs and income in Derna after migrating to Libya in search of employment opportunities.

Ethnic Minorities and Women

Amazigh citizens reside in numerous remote villages throughout the Atlas Mountains region, and many members of this minority believe they have historically suffered from economic and social marginalization in Morocco, which is predominantly Arab.

When the earthquake struck, the isolation of Amazigh villages and their inadequate infrastructure delayed the arrival of government aid, intensifying feelings of inequality among Amazigh citizens. There is a growing concern that the earthquake could potentially disrupt the social fabric of Amazigh villages in the Atlas Mountains due to the displacement of their residents and the destruction of their homes.

Conversely, the earthquake and subsequent floods had a more pronounced impact on women, particularly in cases where women lost their husbands. These women were suddenly burdened with the responsibility of providing protection and income for their families.

In Libya, the absence of state support networks further exacerbated the challenges women faced in coping with the loss of their husbands. As a result, some argue that the disasters in Derna and Morocco have compelled women to take on significant and diverse roles.

The memory of these two disasters is likely to linger in the collective consciousness of North Africa for an extended period due to the profound societal losses experienced in Derna, Marrakesh, and the Moroccan countryside in September 2023. What is most pressing now is the initiative of international organizations and government institutions to address the economic and social aftermath of these disasters, with the aim of preventing a potential decline in living conditions for residents in the future.

In the case of Libya, this task presents a substantial challenge for state institutions, given the ongoing political division and resulting inefficiencies in public administration.

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