Has Kashmir’s Shaky Situation Become A South Asian Nightmare?

When tremors lately caused terror and trepidation in the valley, the region’s seismic zone 5 reality became a resounding reality in the South Asian imagination. But what makes Kashmir situation so shaky?

By Mohsin Ali

It was a grieving gathering of late-nighters on the dark and damp streets of the valley seeking mercy from heavens. They were driven out by a massive quake that shook earth beneath their feet. That recent rattling strike sent women into fits and children into wailing. The adults played fretful guards of their freaking families. In an urban sprawl devoid of community spaces, the tremors felt terrifying as an old and new buildings literally played seesaw.

The dreadful occurrence is seen as another “hostage situation” in Kashmir facing heat of climate change. In recent years, the region has experienced several tremors, which have caused concern among its residents. The most recent of these tremors occurred on 22 March 2023, when the earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 caused widespread panic among the people of the region. “This fear has been heightened due to the recent tremors in Turkey, which resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries,” said Faizan Arif, an independent weather spotter.

The earthquake was felt across a wide area, including in the cities of Srinagar and Baramulla, and several smaller towns and villages. While there were no reports of significant damage or injuries, many residents were shaken by the event and expressed concern about the possibility of more severe earthquakes in the future.

The tremor was the latest in a series of seismic events that have occurred in the region over the past few years. In 2019, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck the region, causing some damage to buildings and triggering landslides in mountainous areas. In 2020, there were several smaller tremors, including a magnitude 3.9 earthquake in July.

The increased frequency of earthquakes in the region has led to concerns about the safety of the infrastructure, particularly buildings and roads, which may not be constructed to withstand seismic activity. There are also concerns about the potential for landslides and other geological hazards, which can be triggered by earthquakes.

Given the history of seismic activity in Kashmir, experts say, it’s important for residents and authorities to be prepared for earthquakes and other natural disasters. This includes implementing building codes and standards that take into account the seismic risks of the region, as well as developing and testing emergency response plans to ensure a quick and effective response to any disasters that may occur.

“Overall, the recent tremors in Kashmir serve as a reminder of the importance of preparedness and vigilance in the face of natural hazards,” Arif says. “While it is impossible to predict when the next earthquake may occur, taking steps to mitigate the risks can help to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people of Kashmir.”

Geographical Nightmare 

Kashmir is located on the boundary between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, which makes it a seismically active region. These plates are constantly moving and colliding, and as they do so, they build up pressure and tension along the faults where they meet. When this pressure is released suddenly, it can result in an earthquake.

The region is also surrounded by high mountain ranges, which can amplify seismic waves and lead to greater ground motion during an earthquake. Additionally, the geology of the area, including the composition and structure of the rocks, can influence the way seismic waves propagate through the ground.

Given its location and geology, experts fear, Kashmir is likely to continue experiencing tremors and earthquakes in the future.

Shaky History

Kashmir has a long history of earthquakes, with some of the most devastating ones occurring in 1885, 1905, 1947, and 2005. The 2005 earthquake was a magnitude 7.6 event that caused widespread damage and loss of life in Kashmir and the surrounding regions.

The earthquake that struck Kashmir on October 8, 2005, was a magnitude 7.6 earthquake that killed over 80,000 people and injured more than 100,000 others. The earthquake was felt across a wide area, including parts of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The epicenter of the earthquake was located near the city of Muzaffarabad.

The earthquake caused widespread damage to infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and buildings. Many villages were completely destroyed, and entire families were killed or left homeless. The earthquake also triggered landslides and avalanches in the mountainous areas of Kashmir, further exacerbating the damage and loss of life.

The response to the earthquake was an international effort, with aid and relief efforts coming from many countries around the world. The governments of India and Pakistan, who have long-standing political tensions, worked together to provide aid to the affected areas.

Since the 2005 earthquake, efforts have been made to improve the infrastructure and emergency response capabilities in the region to better prepare for future seismic events. However, the threat of earthquakes remains a significant concern for the people of Kashmir, and continued efforts are needed to ensure the safety and well-being of those living in the region.

Recent Rattle

The earthquake that lately jolted Kashmir was sourced in northern Afghanistan. The quake originated at a depth of more than 180 km in a sparsely populated region, which, as per experts, is good news, “because that will mean no level of damage in a well-prepared nation”.

However, observers say, more than three decades of war have made Afghanistan extremely vulnerable to all types of hazards due to a lack of resources to prepare, mitigate and adapt, which makes even ordinary risks monstrous. The recent earthquake induced shakes in most neighbouring countries. “It categorically suggests earthquake boundaries do not care about political boundaries and often cross them,” says a Srinagar-based seismologist. “It is because geological structures on which earthquakes originate are mega-structures related to the active tectonic plates.”

The Main Himalayan Thrust (MHT) fault is the primary earthquake-causing fault that connects most South Asian regions, such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan. The megathrust fault, says the seismologist quoted above, threatens all these countries, which means they all share the burden of the hazards associated with the fault. “Ideally, these countries should collaborate to minimize the risks to save lives and assets in future earthquake events,” he suggests. “Such a large-scale collaboration is not in place, often because of political issues, which makes people more vulnerable to hazards.”

Bad News for South Asia

Experts believe the Kashmir earthquake is a bad news for South Asia for several reasons. Firstly, the Kashmir region is located at the intersection of India, Pakistan, and China, and any major earthquake in the area would have significant geopolitical implications. The region is already a hotbed of tension and conflict, and a major earthquake could exacerbate these issues, leading to further instability in the region.

“Secondly, the impact of a major earthquake in Kashmir would extend far beyond the region itself. The earthquake would likely trigger landslides and avalanches, which could block critical infrastructure such as roads and highways, hampering relief efforts and making it difficult for aid to reach those in need. The earthquake could also disrupt water supply systems and damage hospitals, further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis,” says Dinesh Verma, a Delhi-based seismologist.

“The Kashmir earthquake could have significant economic implications for South Asia. The region is home to several major cities, including Srinagar and Islamabad, and any damage to these cities would have a ripple effect across the region. The earthquake could also disrupt transportation systems, making it difficult for goods and services to move across borders, and causing economic disruption in the region.”

Finally, Verma says, the Kashmir earthquake would be a significant humanitarian crisis, with potentially hundreds of thousands of people affected. “The region is already vulnerable due to political unrest and conflict, and a major earthquake would only exacerbate this vulnerability. The earthquake would require a significant international response, with aid and support coming from countries across the region and beyond.”

Afghan Lessons

In the case of Kashmir, several studies have identified the region as a high seismic hazard zone, with a high likelihood of large earthquakes in the future. These studies are based on an analysis of the region’s geological features, including active faults and the historical record of seismic activity in the region. But since Kashmir’s tremor trouble mainly stems from Afghanistan, experts say there are many lessons to learn from the war-torn country.

“Afghan situation makes it clear that earthquake faults are active, alive, and threatening,” says Rafiq Khan, a seismologist based out of London. “They are not dead; they are on their mission to rupture, which could, unfortunately, rupture our dreams if we do not understand the language of hazards and what to expect in the future. Earthquakes cause shaking of the foundations we live on, and we must know how to strengthen that foundation to withstand any incoming earthquake-induced shaking.”

The latest trembling was caused by a fault more than 100 km northwest of Kashmir and more than 180km deep, Khan says. “Image if the fault is under our feet! Unfortunately, that could happen soon. As a geologist, we have mapped active earthquake-causing faults in Kashmir, capable of producing earthquakes of much greater size than what caused recent shaking. We are not prepared to face even a small earthquake of magnitude 6.5, and we expect that quakes on the active faults that shoulder the entire Kashmir region could be much more dangerous and ferocious because of the extent of unplanned urbanization.”

It is critical to understand what recently happened in a medium to developed country like Turkey, which lost more than 50,000 people during the February 2023 quake.

“We live in a developing country where things can do worse, requiring the administration of Kashmir to map the seismic vulnerability of buildings etc., to inform people of what to expect and how to improve so that earthquakes do not cause disasters,” Khan says. “The immediate need is to do the vulnerability mapping because we do not have time to wait. The reviewing of buildings should be prioritized to decide the need for reinforcement and rebuilding, which could involve shifting people to safer locations. The construction of new buildings should be adequately monitored to follow the standard seismic building codes. The entire exercise will take longer if not initiated at the earliest; waiting for more means less time for earthquake hazards to turn into catastrophic events. Therefore, building people’s resilience against risks is urgently needed by strengthening the buildings and foundations to face severe earthquake shaking. We still have time, but we do not know how much, which should worry us more.”

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