Photo essay: Communities still coping in the aftermath of Morocco earthquake

Amazigh women carry the heaters distributed by the Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association (MBLA) to their campsite, where their heat will render the cold mountain nights more tolerable. Photo by Rowan Glass, 2023, used with permission.

All images in this photo essay are courtesy of Rowan Glass, 2023, and are used with permission.

In the Marrakesh-Safi region of south-central Morocco, where a catastrophic earthquake struck on September 8, last year, thousands of people in the heavily affected High Atlas Mountains remain homeless and vulnerable as they rebuild their lives amid the ruins. 

The earthquake — the strongest on record in Morocco and one of the largest in Africa in the 21st century — had its epicenter 73.4 kilometers (46 miles) southwest of Marrakesh, claimed nearly 3,000 lives and left several thousand people injured. Casualties and infrastructural damage were highest in the Amazigh villages of the High Atlas, where traditional mud-brick construction techniques caused buildings to disintegrate over their inhabitants, with deadly results.

The disastrous earthquake prompted a rapid international response, with governments, NGOs, and charities rallying to carry out rescue efforts and provide relief to the survivors. One of these organizations is the Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association (MBLA), an NGO based in Marrakesh that normally works on biocultural sustainability initiatives.

In October 2023, I spent a day with members of the MBLA documenting their relief activities in several Amazigh villages of the High Atlas. These photos testify to the difficult conditions still faced by earthquake survivors and the importance of relief operations provided by organizations like the MBLA.

Kindling hope

Abdellah Aghraz, MBLA co-founder and regional director, surveys a supply tent in the village of Awrigh.

When the earthquake struck, the MBLA put all their past projects on hold to coordinate relief efforts by drawing on their long partnership with High Atlas communities. As international interest swiftly evaporated — and with it the crucial relief funds that initially poured in after the earthquake — the members of the group found themselves tasked with the arduous process of rebuilding these communities with limited resources and the harsh alpine winter quickly approaching.

On the morning of October 25, 2023, Abdellah Aghraz and Soufiane M'sou, two MBLA field technicians, left their headquarters in Marrakesh on a routine relief mission to several earthquake-affected villages in the High Atlas, located several hours uphill from Morocco’s third-largest city. The day’s mission was to distribute several hundred heaters to the unhoused inhabitants of the villages of Anammer and Warti, which the earthquake rendered uninhabitable. 

Residents of the town of Imgdal load heaters into a supply van, to be distributed in tent communities higher up the mountain.

The technicians also planned to build two makeshift toilets for the villagers — in the tent communities, there are often only a few facilities shared between dozens of families. Unfortunately, their distributing partner was unable to deliver the construction materials, a symptom of the logistical challenges that have long hindered relief efforts.

In the High Atlas, the brown of the villages merges with the earth tones of the arid, mountainous landscape on which the most heavily affected communities sit precariously perched. It’s easy to tell where the earthquake struck hardest, for in those places, former dwellings have been reduced to piles of rubble visible from a distance. These villages now lie abandoned, as their residents have moved to clearer ground closer to the roads by which essential aid is delivered. 

One of the villages affected by the earthquake, now mostly abandoned.

As the van trundled up the mountainside, each curve of the road revealed new vistas of desolate village after village. Outside them, the telltale white and blue plastic canvases of makeshift tent communities, bright under the Moroccan sun amid the brown landscape. Occasionally, Abdellah stopped to talk with local men passing astride mules saddled with sacks of supplies — often the only means of access to these remote communities inaccessible by road.

As the relief workers pulled into the gravel driveway leading to the cluster of tents that houses the villagers of Anammer, dozens of curious locals flocked to the vehicle. For many communities like this one, the arrival of an aid vehicle once or twice per week is a break from the daily monotony that followed the sudden upending of their lives. The men approached to greet Abdellah and Soufiane, while the women kept their distance and the children looked on with curiosity. 

Local villagers hasten to help unload the heaters that will provide much-needed warmth to their families through the cold winter nights in the mountains.

For Abdellah and Soufiane, this is one of many routine visits to communities like Anammer. On that visit, they distributed several hundred heaters meant to keep the cold of the mountain nights at bay in the uninsulated tents housing entire families. At other times, they distributed food, medical supplies, clothing, shoes, bedding, and other supplies, as well as constructing portable toilets and other critical infrastructure.

Seeds of resilience

Abdellah instructs the men of Anammer in the use of the gas heaters.

Discussing strategy with community stakeholders is as critical for the relief efforts as distributing resources and building infrastructure. To this effect, they conduct relief work in partnership with local community leaders, such as Amazigh tribal chiefs or the heads of the extended kin networks that characterize High Atlas village life. According to the MBLA, this type of community collaboration — the result of relationships built over more than a decade of work with these communities through their other projects — is an essential aspect of their relief work.

A tent encampment outside the High Atlas village of Anammer, where survivors of Morocco’s catastrophic earthquake must pass the harsh alpine winter with limited resources.

As the constant relief efforts have ameliorated the basic needs of affected communities, the MBLA and other aid organizations have pivoted towards long-term strategies focusing on the comprehensive rebuilding of the High Atlas communities whose livelihoods were severely affected by the earthquake. 

Thousands of people rendered homeless by the earthquake still live in tent communities like these as they wait on reconstruction efforts that may take months or years to complete.

In November, the MBLA began carrying out seed distribution projects in the Imgdal region, supporting the agricultural sector and enabling local farmers to recuperate seed stocks lost during the earthquake. This work will pave the way for affected communities to return to the sustainable self-reliance that characterized them before the earthquake. 

Though facing the most difficult circumstances, the villagers demonstrated the generosity and hospitality for which Moroccans are famous, sharing lunch and tea with their visitors.

Despite the efforts of organizations like the MBLA, it appears that a long road of recovery still lies ahead for the earthquake survivors of the High Atlas.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.