20231011 chahak
A drone view of destroyed houses after the recent earthquake in Chahak village in the Enjil district of Herat province, Afghanistan. Image Credit: Reuters

Herat, Afghanistan: Afghanistan's Taliban government downgraded the death toll from a series of earthquakes to "over 1,000" on Wednesday, as fresh tremors panicked residents of villages flattened by the disaster.

The latest quake hit at dawn around 30 kilometres (19 miles) north of the provincial capital of Herat, where thousands were spending a fourth night in the open after Saturday's quakes.

"It's horrible, the whole of Herat is terrified," said 32-year-old Abdul Qudos. "We are so scared that even when we see the trees moving (in the wind), we think it's another earthquake coming."

Disaster management officials initially put the death toll of the weekend quake at 2,053.

But public health minister Qalandar Ebad attributed the confusion to the remoteness of the area and double reporting during the rescue effort.

"When whole villages are destroyed and populations erased... verifying the affected and martyred people, and the number of wounded, is a very difficult process," he said, adding that 2,400 had been injured.

At least one person was killed and 130 injured in the latest quake on Wednesday, he said.

Some of the wounded were hit by the debris of already destroyed homes, said Abdul Zahir Noorzai, ambulance manager for Herat Regional Hospital.

The magnitude 6.3 quake on Wednesday was followed by aftershocks measuring 5.0 and 4.1, but an AFP reporter said damage in Herat city - home to more than half a million people - was minimal.

Many residents have camped in tents, cars and gardens since Saturday's magnitude 6.3 quake and a series of powerful aftershocks.

"Our children are so scared that they stay awake until the morning. They don't sleep," said 40-year-old Aziz Ahmad.

Casualties in flux

Volunteers have been digging for survivors and bodies from the earlier quakes which totally destroyed at least six villages in rural Zenda Jan district and affected more than 12,000 people, the United Nations said.

Providing shelter on a large scale will be a challenge for Afghanistan's Taliban authorities, who seized power in August 2021, and have fractious relations with international aid organisations.

"Not a single house is left, not even a room where we could stay at night," said 40-year-old Mohammad Naeem, who told AFP he lost 12 relatives, including his mother, after Saturday's earthquakes.

"We can't live here anymore. You can see, our family got martyred here. How could we live here?"

Most homes in rural Afghanistan are made of mud and built around wooden support poles, with little in the way of steel or concrete reinforcement.

Multi-generational extended families generally live under the same roof, meaning serious earthquakes can devastate communities.

Afghanistan is already suffering a dire humanitarian crisis, with the widespread withdrawal of foreign aid following the Taliban's return to power.

Herat province, on the border with Iran, is home to around 1.9 million people, and its rural communities have been suffering from a years-long drought.