The number of people killed in a massive avalanche in a mountain-bound valley in northeastern Afghanistan rose on Thursday to 165 as lack of equipment and the sheer depth of snow that buried entire homes and families hampered rescue efforts.
“We’re facing a real crisis because of the depth of the snow,” said Mohammad Aslam Syas, deputy chief of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority.
So far, 165 deaths had been confirmed in the Panjshir Valley, in Panjshir province, which is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Afghan capital, Kabul, he said.
“We can only speculate on how many people are buried beneath destroyed houses. It’s possible that if houses have not collapsed beneath the weight of the snow, we can still find people alive,” he said.
The Afghan army deployed 1,000 soldiers from the Kabul Corps to the Panjshir Valley, to help in the rescue efforts.
Gen. Kadam Shah Shahim, Kabul Corps commander, said he expected the death toll to rise. Rescue efforts are painstaking and slow, and can only take place during daylight hours because of the lack of power for lighting the disaster zone.
Rescuers were using shovels and their hands to scoop away snow from the estimated 100 homes destroyed or damaged in the avalanche, which followed heavy snow storms on Tuesday and Wednesday, said Abdul Rahman Kabiri, the acting governor of the province.
Roads remained impassable on Thursday, blocked by fallen trees and snow more than 1 meter (3 feet) deep in many places. Conditions made it difficult for teams to reach the disaster sites in the north of the province, said agency chief Mohammad Daim Kakar.
Panjshir was just one province badly hit by the sudden and ferocious interruption to what had been a mild and dry winter. At least four northeastern provinces were hit by deadly avalanches and flooding.
Disaster relief- food, clothing and shelter- was being sent to districts in the far north of the country, many parts of which are often cut off for months by snowfall. The Salang Tunnel linking the north and south closed and power supply to Kabul was badly curtailed.
More snow and rain was predicted for central Afghanistan, with temperatures expected to drop as low as minus-12 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) in the central mountain belt.
Afghanistan has suffered through some three decades of war since the Soviet invasion in 1979. But natural disasters such as landslides, floods and avalanches have also taken a huge toll on a country with little infrastructure or development outside of its major cities.