Living with earthquakes in Kashmir

The stunning beauty of Kashmir valley is packed with tales of agony both by humans and natural forces. The decades old political conflict between Indian, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir is an unending process and has already destroyed life and property to a great extent. The natural disasters have come mainly as earthquakes, and history stands witness that there were 13 major earthquakes in the valley over the last millennium, those include the damaging earthquakes of 1555 and 1885. This indicates that the Kashmir Valley is a locus of active deformation that occurs primarily because the Indian plate collides with that of the Eurasian plate and the accumulated stress is released as earthquake. This process shall continue in future, unless there is a drastic change in the Indian plate trajectory, which seems unlikely in the human history.

The current earthquake studies in Kashmir have shows strong geomorphic evidences of recent activity on faults in Kashmir. There are two major faults, one of which is ~163 km long and thus, capable to host a magnitude 7.6 or bigger earthquake. The studies thus take us back to the recent memory of Muzaferabad earthquake (2005), which was of magnitude 7.6 and killed more than 75,000 people and destroyed property worth billions. The lessons that we should have learnt are unfortunately quickly forgotten. These deaths occurred primarily because of the poor construction patterns, where people build structures without any structural engineering input to build earthquake resistant structures. Such a practice is unfortunately, a routine in most of the developing nations and Kashmir is not an exception. The big earthquake of 2005 has changed nothing, because construction routine continues and past becomes history, which demands an immediate attention, particularly from scientific community.

In the Kashmir valley, the earthquake memory is quite old, because two major damaging earthquakes are said to have occurred in 1555 and 1885, therefore, such memories are buried under the rubble of new memories, which fortunately, have not seen a big earthquake and thus, the routine of unsafe construction has continued. Now, the buildings are a pile of concrete squares, without any safety precautions, which is alarming in a seismically active region like Kashmir. This practice of poor construction has continued unchecked, partly because of our political unrest, which has given less time for people to think beyond 24hours of survival and partly, because of poor administration, which has equally been casual about the potential threats from earthquakes.

It is never too late to turn and to think of a safer future, where people can live with earthquakes. Thus, people must unite as a team and workout strategy to counter earthquake hazards and in fact learn to live and be safer with earthquakes. However, to begin our long struggle to face earthquake challenges, there are various potential reasons, which could force one to bypass earthquake resistant instructions to build structures. Some of such reasons are poverty, engineering illiteracy, poor administration andreligious hangovers. These are the reasons, which could greatly impact to propagate the earthquake science sense among people. Japan, a nation, which has learnt be live with earthquakes is one of the major countries in the world, which has developed robust technologies to counter the continuous earthquake threats. They have achieved it after decades of hard work, wherein they have trained people to build earthquake resistant structures, thus, the engineering literacy rate is higher. The poverty rate is lower and thus, relatively easier to build safer structures. There are strict building codes to follow; government is sincerely working with people to make sure nothing is compromised and no religious monks are asked for any advice to build earthquake resistant structures.

Poverty is definitely one of the major reasons for poor and unsafe constructions, which is not easy to handle, particularly, in an overpopulated developing world. It means for a safer future, we must eradicate poverty first. This should be the priority of our nation and concrete steps should be taken to ensure that our neighbours are equally safe and self-sufficient. Since, poverty is usually associated a higher illiteracy rate, which is equally responsible for hindrance to development. Thus, poverty needs to be controlled, which will require all people to contribute, otherwise, it will always remain a mission unaccomplished.

Engineering illiteracy means that people are technologically uneducated to answer natural threats in a meaningful manner, this must be addressed and an efficient way to handle this is to make sure that people are scientifically literate and understand the cause and remedy of earthquake destruction. This could be achieved if scientific community shoulders the responsibility to organize workshops, conferences etc. to propagate the earthquake science and technology to build resistant structures. A major role could be played by Kashmiri engineering staff and students, who can join together and help to narrow down an obvious knowledge gap. These people can impact our society to a greater extent; provided they sincerely try to build an earthquake safer conscience in people¬ís mind. 

Poor administration is definitely one of the key elements to hinder a safer and secure future. Let us face it; we have had decades of political unrest in Kashmir, which has hardly given us enough time and space to build our conscious and think about safety from natural hazards. This worsens down even further, when poor administration takes over. Thus, the administration has to be taken on board to build safer future, which could be achieved if engineering staff and students communicate the information rightly and to the right people.

Religious hangovers, what that means is that a large section of people behave as religious monks, who can predict future. These people take everything as a punishment from God and therefore, handover the responsibility that belong to them and instead, every natural calamity goes into God account! Therefore, it is the responsibility of religious and scientifically conscious people to guide these people and make them understand the role of God and how we can live in harmony with nature. 

--Dr. Afroz Ahmad Shah is Senior Lecturer | Department of Applied Geology, School of Engineering and Science, Curtin University, Sarawak Malaysia

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