An earthquake of 7.3 magnitude struck Iraq and Iran on November 12. It began in the Iraqi area of Halabja but its tremors were felt across the Middle East and its effects were extensive.
Osamah Golpy, a journalist at Rudaw English who was in Halabja at the time, described the scene: ‘I was sitting with two friends in a park that was close to a main street. We were having a conversation when the ground started to shake. One of my friends told us after a second or so that this must be an earthquake. He instantly asked us to go to the other side of the park to take shelter, which we did. But I noticed that we are right under an electricity pole and trees’.
‘My biggest fear was [that] the poles [would] fall. I asked them that we move further across the street, away from the trees and the poles’, Golpy said.
‘But during this, I heard people making their way out from a store, many screaming out of fear. There was a woman who could not stop crying. She was in total panic. After a few minutes, lots of cars started to drive fast as they were trying to make their way to the nearby hospital’.
Estimates that that earthquake has killed at least 530 people and injured approximately 10,000 make it one of the deadliest natural disasters this year.
The casualties did not fall evenly. Most of the deaths and injuries occurred in Iran. Iraq did not escape unscathed, however; its northern Kurdish region was affected but the death toll there was less than 10.
In Iran, as many as 30,000 homes have been damaged and several villages were reported almost completely destroyed. This is an immense tragedy. But the Iranian government has not escaped blame.
Abdulla Hawez, an analyst at King’s College London who studies the region, said that despite all this damage, Iran has declined to ‘request for help [from] other countries and international NGOs’.
Many observers have criticised this response. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, offered his own criticism of his country’s reaction to the disaster, saying he was ‘not satisfied’ and that some officials needed to ‘double their efforts’.
The root of this failure is more than simple laziness on the part of government officials, however.
‘[All] the Iranian authorities have done has been giving each family that has been most affected by the quake $500, which is too little, given that in the most affected areas these families have lost their house and many have also lost their cars’, Hawez said.
Far fewer lost their lives or were injured in Iraq than in Iran. But though this may be partially due to chance, some credit must be given to those in authority who responded to this tragic event.
Attributing credit within Iraq is not easy. As the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq are autonomous, it is sometimes difficult to see where the responsibility of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) begins and that of the Iraqi state ends.
Hawez noted that, in its response, ‘the KRG has dedicated over $100,000 to compensate the affected families’. In general, he said, ‘the KRG response is poor, but given the KRG is going through a very severe economic crisis, the modest response has not been surprising’.
Golpy said: ‘I believe that it was the KRG who did most of the work on the ground, mainly because the areas hit are located in the Kurdistan region’.
Internationally, the earthquake has spurred some international assistance.
Turkey had closed its border with Iraqi Kurdistan in response to the KRG’s disputed independence referendum last month, but ‘in Iraq, the quickest response was surprisingly from Turkey’, Hawez said. Turkey opened its border, provided material aid and facilitated the movement of Red Crescent convoys into Iraqi Kurdistan. It is unlikely this occurred without the Iraqi federal government’s authorisation and support.
Hawez said that ‘the poorest response has been from Iraq, [which] has almost done nothing to reach out to the people in the affected areas’.
‘The only place we see Iraq taking part of the response is the Darbandikhan dam, the place worst hit in Kurdistan’, said Golpy. He noted that many Kurds think the Iraqi state only took an interest in the dam because, if it were damaged, it would affect more than just Iraq’s Kurds.
Still, Golpy reiterates: ‘Baghdad and Erbil worked together to repair the dam’.
In the aftermath of natural disasters, there are chaos and disarray and suggestions of administrative failure. In Iraq after the earthquake, following the failure and success of the central government and the KRG is rendered difficult. People are likely to blame the two sides for not working together efficiently.
These criticisms are valid. But the Iraqi state, the KRG and its Turkish neighbour still succeeded where Iran appears to have tragically failed.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.