Almost a week after the most powerful earthquake to strike inside its borders since at least 1900, Morocco is still counting the dead. Officials reported at least 2,946 people had died while more 5,674 were injured in the 6.8 magnitude quake, which struck late the evening of Sept. 8 in a remote region of the High Atlas mountains.
The death toll makes the quake the deadliest in the country since 1960, and rescuers and experts warned the severe damage and loss of life was exacerbated by the vulnerability of the traditional mud, brick and stone-built housing in the region.
“It’s difficult to pull people out alive because most of the walls and ceilings turned to earthen rubble when they fell, burying whoever was inside,” a military rescue worker, asking not to be named because of army rules against speaking to media, said at an army centre south of the historic city of Marrakech not far from the quake epicentre.
An ancient construction technique
Homes in the villages dotted across the High Atlas mountains and foothills where the quake’s shaking was most severe are often constructed from stone, wood and raw earth using techniques that are centuries old. They are often built by the families who live in them, without any architect’s help and with extensions tacked on to the main structure over time.
These traditional construction techniques are often praised for their ability to help regulate heat in the hot weather conditions of the region. A National Geographic article published this year said local architects preferred mud brick based construction over concrete because they “create cooler structures than concrete, are cheaper, and require less energy to produce.”
Local architects also champion the techniques for preserving regional culture and making use of hundreds of years of architectural expertise tailored to the local climate and geography.
Within the hard-to-access villages of the High Atlas mountains, which can rely on networks of rough dirt roads to connect them, these techniques also allow homes to be constructed primarily from locally-sourced materials where more modern building materials are difficult to get in.
With poverty levels high in the region, cost is often a driving factor, too.
But the benefits of the earthen materials used to address local climate and economic conditions are also uniquely vulnerable to earthquakes.