Written by Hafssa Fakher Elabiari, Luca Saviolo, Pablo Pastor Vidal
Edited by Tommaso Filippini
The Observatory pays tribute to the earthquake victims. Our intention is no other but to respect the survivors’ sorrow and mourning, and to bring light to what happened with the hope that equitable reparation is achieved. We thank local and foreign actors for their relief efforts and tireless work to save lives.
In comparison with other Mediterranean countries, Morocco shows limited seismicity, but it is far from immune to nature’s anger episodes. The 6.8-magnitude earthquake that hit the High Atlas region on September 8th, echoed the deadly 1960 and 2004 earthquakes in Agadir and Al-Hoceima by killing, according to the Interior Ministry, at least 2,900 people and injuring 5,600, while displacing up to 500,000 (Boxerman, 2023).
The quake’s epicentre, 71 km southwest of Marrakech, is part of the so-called Al-Maghrib Al-Mansi (the forgotten Morocco), where social services such as healthcare, education and paved roads are lacking or missing (ReliefWeb, 2023a). Marginalisation is widespread, and houses are not built according to seismic codes, oftentimes using rudimentary materials such as mud brick, turning the epicentre into a hub of vulnerability.
If this reality amplified the extent of the disaster, leaving nothing but buried villages and a displaced population stuck in a limbo, the earthquake was a surprise test for Morocco’s capabilities as far as mitigation, preparedness and response are concerned. However, the recovery phase offers ample opportunities for Rabat to make up for the errors made, but it also involves a wide range of challenges that risk hindering recovery and hampering future quake prevention.
The Earthquake and Morocco’s Response
The earthquake struck at 11:11 pm local time, catching everyone off guard, including King Mohammed VI, who was on a private visit to France. The timing, combined with the monarch’s absence and the government’s lack of quake expertise, paralysed the country and its communication machine.
On social media, it was not clear whether aftershocks would continue, and if so, where and at what magnitude. The government was on mute, except for the Royal Armed Forces and a few news channels. Condolence messages started flooding from all over the world, while some also expressed their willingness to send rescue teams, vehicles, equipment and financial aid (“Séisme au Maroc,” 2023). Moroccan authorities immediately called on people to donate blood, since the reserves were insufficient to meet the high demand for transfusion among the injured (“Séisme d’al Haouz,” 2023). From Paris, the King, who is the army’s commander and chief of general staff, authorised a wide mobilisation of logistic and human resources. Upon his return to the country, he accepted aid from Qatar, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates. But the management of foreign assistance was also a primary matter of discussion. When a natural disaster occurs, it is indeed common for help to be offered from all over the world, especially from the country’s main allies. The case study of Morocco was no different on the offer side. What was peculiar was the response of the Moroccan government, which selectively accepted only a few offers of aid, rejecting many and thus triggering high frustration and harsh criticism from foreign countries, especially from France, which accused Morocco of geopolitical calculations.
The earthquake affected nearly 2.8 million of Morocco’s 37 million inhabitants (Mejdoup, 2023). Based on this estimation, the government announced it would devote 12 billion dollars to disaster recovery, in addition to financial packages for the affected people (Mejdoup, 2023). Presumably, every household would receive a monthly USD 250 contribution for a one-year period. As for destroyed properties, the government set the compensation at USD 14,000 and 8,000 for total and partial destruction respectively. An account was opened at Bank Al-Maghrib to collect donations. Large companies such as OCP Group and the royal holding company Al-Mada made philanthropic donations (“Séisme tragique au Maroc,” 2023). The government also created the so-called High Atlas Development Agency to supervise the recovery process, with its headquarters to be based in Al Haouz Province (Al-Tijani, 2023).
At the grassroots level, a nationwide social mobilisation took place (El Ahmadi & Sharawi, 2023). Through local organisations, citizens raised funds to acquire food, water, clothing, medicine, hygiene products and tents for the victims. Many ordinary citizens, journalists and activists went to the affected areas to help and capture the raw reality by giving first-hand reports, unravelling the costs of marginalisation and unaccountability.
Following the regime’s communication, Morocco’s quake response looked flawless, but reality was different, and at a closer glance three main issues emerged. First, the army did not deploy a rescue strategy that fit with geographical imperatives. The disaster area is mountainous, and this detail presents challenges and gives ample information on how rescue and relief missions should proceed and how aid should be delivered. Yet, the army’s deployment of Chinook helicopters, used to carry heavy material due to their large size and capacity, revealed mismanagement (Hamid Elmahdaouy, 2023). The helicopters could not make manoeuvres between mountains, let alone perform landing. Second, the paucity of paved roads, hospitals, ambulances and medical staff revealed a gap between state capacities and the disaster. Finally, the earthquake survivors are differently vulnerable, and their needs vary in nature and extent. Yet, the government set standard compensation packages, overlooking the variability of needs and favouring equality over equity.
Morocco’s quake has thus represented a surprise test for the country’s response capabilities, and while authorities depicted it as flawless, rapid and efficient, reality looks rower, and the disaster has shed light on Morocco’s main structural deficiencies: a rigidly centralised power structure and a lack of transparency.
Power Centralisation and Opacity
The first 72 hours post-disaster are critical in determining the survivor-to-dead ratio (ReliefWeb, 2023c). In fact, more than 90% of rescues take place within that time frame. After the ‘golden phase’ has passed, the risk of death from asphyxia, internal bleeding and dehydration multiplies. For this reason, the earthquake response ought to be swift. Yet, the King’s absence delayed the authorities’ quake response and confirmed that power remains rigidly concentrated in the royal circle, even amid force majeure events.
While it is generally thought that centralised systems ensure a clear chain of command – which is crucial in disaster management – centralisation becomes counterproductive when the executive monopolises decision-making and leaves the government with marginal power. In Morocco, the 2011 Constitution gave wide room for devolution of power and decentralisation – title IX is entirely dedicated to territorial and local authorities and provides for direct election of authorities and gives them a certain degree of independence under the principle of subsidiarity. However, the royal palace still holds a firm grip over matters that should normally fall under the jurisdiction of central and local administrations (Maghraoui, 2019). While this power structure was generally innocuous, the King’s frequent and long personal travels abroad highlighted the urgent need for change beyond the ink on paper. The quake caught the monarch in Paris, who landed in Morocco only after nearly 19 hours, reducing the ‘golden window’ to 53 hours.
No one issues commands but the King. This is the message that the Akhannouch government conveyed to justify its long and baffling paralysis. As soon as the King held a working session in Rabat, the response was set: condolence messages, press conferences, military helicopters, and relief funds. Hence, this power distribution clearly portrays the King as the ruler who always listens to his subjects’ concerns and as the only person who has a magic stick to end their ordeal.
Nevertheless, Morocco’s monopolistic power structure does not only slow down decision-making, but it also blurs the lines of accountability, shifting responsibility from bottom-hierarchy authorities, including heads of rural communities. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that many quake survivors directly appealed to the King to ask for basic rights, calling him Jalalat al-Malik (your majesty) or Sidna (our master). Ultimately, the monarch was able to consolidate the image of Malik al-Fukara (King of the poor) during the first years of his reign (Cubertafond, 2004). His visit to a public hospital in Marrakech four days after the earthquake reinforced the image of a compassionate King who stands in the face of corruption, power abuse, and embezzlement (Bentaher, 2023)
Tied to poor accountability, the lack of transparency is indeed another aspect that hampered Morocco’s disaster response. Opacity has always been a central trait of Makhzen’s modus operandi. Despite the fact that transparent communication is a pillar of successful disaster management, Moroccan authorities remain opaque, and their approach towards foreign help is self-explanatory. Although the extent of destruction seemed to outstrip the capabilities of the army and the government, Morocco accepted help only from four countries, without providing detailed reasons, but roughly mentioning the need to ensure efficiency as a recipient.
According to the United States Geological Survey, the quake caused nearly 10 billion euros worth of damage, nearly 8% of Morocco’s 2022 Gross Domestic Product (USGS, 2023). It is estimated that the disaster displaced 500,000 people and affected 100,000 children (Reliefweb, 2023b; UNICEF, 2023). It remains to be seen whether or not the attributed funds will suffice for the recovery phase, especially because the pre-quake situation had been fragile and the nature of the damage is multi-faceted (e.g., properties, historic sites). This section provides recommendations for the Moroccan government to ensure a human-centred recovery that helps victims recover from the disaster while putting an end to marginalisation in the forgotten Morocco
Women: In Morocco, the literacy rate among women (15 years old and above) is quite low (67.4%) compared to males (85%). In the High Atlas – the hardest hit region – statistics are even lower for women, due to the lack of schools, remoteness, and socio-cultural barriers (World Bank, 2023). Despite the invaluable achievements of non-governmental organisations like Education for All, illiteracy continues to be a huge threat for development. When this is not the case, literate women are still vulnerable due to early marriages that place them in a cycle of dependency. The quake has increased this pattern, and many women who lost their families may now be more vulnerable to exploitation (labour and sexual).
The Moroccan government should address this issue by training women to be able to sustain themselves financially by offering: literacy classes for women who have not had the opportunity to attend school; Darija/ Arabic classes for women who only speak Tamazight; workshops to help hit women to acquire a profession through a converged action of ministerial bodies. Furthermore, the Office de la Formation Professionnelle et de Promotion du Travail (OFPPT) can play a pivotal role, since it is the leading national institution that offers vocational training. Local associations, cooperatives and organisations can also help empower women. Finally, the ministries of education and higher education should open and promote courses, and promote the possibilities for women affected by the earthquake to pursue their education beyond the mere ability to read and write.
Children: Natural disasters amplify children’s vulnerability, and directly affect their access to basic social services such as education and healthcare, but the loss of family, especially parents, adds an additional layer of fragility. In the absence of proper support, children would be exposed to exploitation and human trafficking. Therefore, the General Directorate for National Security should remain alert to apprehend individuals who may use children for labour and/ or sexual exploitation. In collaboration with local and international organisations, the government should ensure that children are placed in a healthy environment where they can thrive and succeed. This includes providing safe and clean accommodation for children, ensuring uninterrupted access to quality education and healthcare, as well as support even after they reach the legal adult age.
Psychological support: Mental health is an indissociable part of well-being, and the earthquake inflicted a heavy toll on the mental health of adults and children. Many survivors have lost family members, friends, property, and/or suffered permanent physical disabilities. The psychological toll is especially heavy for people who have not been able to bury their loved ones and those who lost more than one person. Therefore, they risk developing post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma responses, the symptoms of which may worsen if left untreated (Fong et al., 2022). Consequently, the Ministry of Health should accompany the victims to help them surmount the quake trauma. In doing so, it should collaborate with psychologists who are proficient in Amazigh to accommodate people who do not speak Darija.
Decentralisation: The earthquake has shown that the full power centralisation to the royal palace can be detrimental. The 2011 constitution brought about reforms, but progress remains slow (Houdret & Harnisch, 2018). Decision-making should not remain the exclusive domain of the King and his entourage. Still, the limited administrative competencies, autonomy and resources of public institutions’ are among the factors that have obstructed decentralisation (Houdret & Harnisch, 2017). Therefore, Morocco should aim to promote localised governance to redraw the lines of accountability and tackle marginalisation. However, decentralisation cannot yield significant change if it is not accompanied by transparency and popular participation. This is what fosters the social contract between the people and the authorities, but to achieve that, the ruling elite should be willing to cede some of its power.
Al-Tijani, A. (2023, October 3). المصادقة على إحداث وكالة تنمية الأطلس الكبير. Hespress. https://www.hespress.com/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A5%D8%AD%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AB-%D9%88%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B7%D9%84%D8%B3-1242151.html
Bentaher, A. (2023, September 12). Le roi du Maroc rend visite aux victimes du tremblement de terre et fait un don de Sang. Anadolu Ajansı. https://www.aa.com.tr/fr/afrique/le-roi-du-maroc-rend-visite-aux-victimes-du-tremblement-de-terre-et-fait-un-don-de-sang-/2990545
Boxerman, A. (2023, September 14). What we know about the earthquake that devastated morocco. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/morocco-earthquake.html
Cubertafond, B. (2004). Mohamed VI, Commandeur des croyants au secours de la laïcité ?. Confluences Méditerranée, 51, 163-180.
El Ahmadi, M., & Sharawi, A. (2023). Morocco unites in the aftermath of the earthquake. The Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/morocco-unites-aftermath-earthquake
Elmahdaouy, H. (2023, September 23). عزيز غالي: مصالحة المغرب مع فرنسا رهينة برحيل ماكرون. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLrKfYUjd8U&t=1452s
Fong, K.N.K, et al. (2022). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an earthquake experience: A cross-sectional survey of wenchuan earthquake victims with physical disabilities 10 years later. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 80, 103225.
Houdret, A, & Harnisch, A. (2017). Decentralisation in Morocco The current reform and its possible contribution to political liberalisation (pp. 1–40). Bonn, Germany: DIE German Development Institute.
Houdret, Annabelle, & Harnisch, A. (2018). Decentralisation in Morocco: A solution to the ‘Arab Spring’? The Journal of North African Studies, 24(6), 935–960.
Le Matin. (2023, September 9). Séisme au Maroc : Messages de condoléances et de Soutien des chefs de Gouvernement. Le Matin. https://lematin.ma/express/2023/seisme-maroc-messages-condoleances-soutien-monde/393927.html
Maghraoui, D. (2019). On the relevance or irrelevance of political parties in Morocco. The Journal of North African Studies, 25(6), 939–959.
Medias24. (2023, October 16). Séisme tragique au Maroc le 8 Septembre 2023. Medias24. https://medias24.com/2023/09/24/seisme-voici-la-liste-des-dons-financiers-en-continu/
Medias24. (2023, September 9). Séisme d’al Haouz : Appel au don de sang. Medias24. https://medias24.com/2023/09/09/seisme-dal-haouz-appel-au-don-de-sang/
Mejdoup, K. (2023, September 9). زلزال المغرب.. حجم الأضرار وقيمة المساعدات. Anadolu Ajansı. https://www.aa.com.tr/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1/%D8%B2%D9%84%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%BA%D8%B1%D8%A8-%D8%AD%D8%AC%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B6%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%88%D9%82%D9%8A%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A5%D8%B7%D8%A7%D8%B1/3002681
ReliefWeb OCHA. (2023a). Morocco: Earthquake – Sep 2023. ReliefWeb. https://reliefweb.int/disaster/eq-2023-000166-mar
ReliefWeb OCHA. (2023b). Morocco Earthquake: Situation Report . ReliefWeb. https://reliefweb.int/report/morocco/morocco-earthquake-situation-report-4-october-2-2023
ReliefWeb OCHA. (2023c). 72 Hours Later: Interactive Story about Rescue Operations in Syria. ReliefWeb. https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/72-hours-later-interactive-story-about-rescue-operations-syria
UNICEF. (2023). Maroc : AU Moins 100 000 enfants touchés par le tremblement de terre. https://www.unicef.fr/article/maroc-au-moins-100-000-enfants-touches-par-le-tremblement-de-terre/
USGS. (2023). M 6.8 – Al Haouz, Morocco. Earthquake Hazards Program. https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eventpage/us7000kufc/pager World Bank. (2023). Literacy rate. World Bank Open Data. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.MA.ZS?locations=MA