Understanding the disproportionate impacts of the Morocco earthquake
Samia Errazzouki discusses the challenges facing Morocco in the country’s recovery post-earthquake, and how historical and structural forces are contributing to the region’s problems.
The powerful earthquake in Morocco has killed over 2,800 people – a number authorities say is expected to rise – and injured 2,500 more. The country’s indigenous population living in the High Atlas, the Imazighen, have been especially hard hit.
Friday’s disaster has only amplified some of the injustices and inequalities the Imazighen have long been subjected to, said Samia Errazzouki, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History specializing in North Africa.
In an interview for Stanford Report, Errazzouki says that for decades if not centuries, Amazigh communities have been living at the country’s margins, with basic needs and infrastructure neglected and sometimes denied. In some villages, building codes have required the use of clay for aesthetic purposes, preventing people from building stable and durable homes, Errazzouki said.
Here, Errazzouki talks about these issues and more, including how the state’s decisions to allocate resources and govern centrally has made, and will continue to make, recovery efforts difficult.
Errazzouki joined Stanford this academic year through the Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities, a program run through the Stanford Humanities Center to help recent PhD recipients in the humanities to develop as scholars and teachers.
What can you tell us about previous earthquakes and environmental disasters in Morocco, and is there anything that makes this one particularly unique?
Earthquakes are a recurring reality in Morocco, and they mostly disproportionately impact the Amazigh communities most for the reasons outlined above, but also because of the epicenters. In 1960, Morocco suffered its most devastating earthquake in Agadir, resulting in at least 12,000 deaths. In 2004, the northern Rif region also suffered an earthquake, resulting in over 600 deaths. Like Al-Haouz, Agadir and the Rif are predominantly Imazighen. These are also regions and communities that have attempted to mobilize and demand greater state support, such as the 2016-2017 Hirak protests in the Rif. Those that led the protests, however, are now serving 20-year prison sentences.
What makes this earthquake unique is that it is taking place during a time when access to information is more readily available. Locals have access to the internet and are documenting the aftermath for the whole world to see. For the first time, the international community is getting a glimpse into the realities of Morocco’s poorest populations – a reality that the Moroccan state has generally tried to keep hidden from the otherwise positive media attention and gaze of tourists. It is also taking place during a time when the Moroccan leadership has largely been absent. It took the palace nearly 20 hours to issue a statement on the earthquake and to convene a Cabinet meeting. And as of Monday night, the head of state, King Mohammed VI, has yet to address the Moroccan people. This has created a cloud of opacity surrounding the state’s management and emergency response, especially over questions regarding the authorization of foreign aid.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has warned that rebuilding efforts in Morocco could take years. What makes recovery so challenging?
The regions that were hit the hardest are nestled deep in the High Atlas Mountains. The terrain is rough, and the climate is harsh. It is a region that is already difficult to navigate, the more so in the aftermath of this devastating earthquake. Furthermore, the existing infrastructure is significantly outdated and bare: Most of the roads are not paved, access to running water is limited, and electricity is not reliable. Rebuilding these areas will take a significant amount of time and resources, mostly because all the material will have to be brought in from the outside and, at least for the short term, transported via helicopters and planes.
What factors contribute to some of these challenges?
The biggest factor that has contributed to these problems has been the state’s management of resources and development strategies. The Moroccan state has largely privileged urban centers and areas frequented by tourism when it comes to expending resources and targeting for development. Take the national railway system, for example. The furthest south the train system goes is Marrakech, significantly out of reach for many of the country’s rural populations. Despite this, however, the Moroccan government recently spent $2 billion to upgrade the train system with a high-speed rail – resources that could have gone toward extending the railway system beyond Marrakech.
In addition, the highly centralized nature of the state has weakened the ability of these rural regions and provinces from taking matters into their own hands. State officials at the local level exercise an excessive amount of authority, which oftentimes impedes daily life, and many bureaucratic processes only take place in the capital of Rabat. This means that merely getting a signature for a piece of paperwork would require expending the time, effort, and money to travel for several hours. What results is an extremely ineffective and bloated public sector that relies on the oversight of an authoritarian regime.
How do the issues Morocco is experiencing compare to other countries in the region?
Unfortunately, the issues that plague Morocco can be seen in many countries throughout the region. The combination of a recent colonial past, authoritarianism, uneven economic development, corruption, a poor human rights record – these are factors that have shaped the realities of people throughout the region. And like Morocco, other countries in the region have had to contend with natural disasters, such as the recent flooding in Libya, and earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, for example. In these moments of crisis, the weaknesses of these states are oftentimes laid bare and the international community witnesses the great human cost that comes at the expense of these issues. Morocco is no different.
Many victims come from the region of Al-Haouz. What can you tell us about the people living in that area and the issues they face?
The vast majority of the people in the region of Al-Haouz are ethnically Imazighen, the indigenous population of North Africa. They are a community that has historically been marginalized by the state, which has privileged a policy of Arabization ever since independence in 1956. This meant that the Amazigh language, culture, tradition, and history received little to no state support. Recently, and in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in the region, the state has taken on a more proactive approach to addressing the absence of Amazigh representation in the public space, but that has yet to fully translate to more equitable treatment, especially when it comes to economic and social development.
Additionally, the main construction material in this region is clay. In some villages, there are building codes that require the use of clay for aesthetic reasons. As such, those who try to construct their homes with more stable and durable material are prevented from doing so.