Sleeping Over Disaster


When the country most equipped to deal with a high intensity quake is shattered, what lessons does it have for Kashmir, where people seem unwilling to learn any lessons. Syed Asma reports on the lessons that Kashmir refused to learn.

When the October 2005 earthquake, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, devastated Muzaffarabad, and flattened hundreds of houses in Uri and Karnah, Kashmiris suddenly awake to the dangers that lie beneath its ground. Kashmir valley falls in Zone IV and V on seismic map. These zones are prone to disastrous quakes. Kashmir has experienced such devastating earthquakes in the past, the most recent being the 2005 earthquake.

Tangdar, Keran, Karnah in Kupwara district and Uri in Baramulla district suffered worst damage in the disaster of 2005. Many people have anecdotes to share about their experiences, losses and observations. And interestingly, much of the population in the Valley came to know about the existence of the seismic sensitive zone after the disaster.

“I was quite surprised to know that I am a part of place which is a seismic zone and that too of Zone IV and V. I never knew it. Never! Nobody in family and not even in schools talked about it,” shares Shazia, a Srinagar resident and a science graduate.

Aiding the disaster

One of the major factors that determines the extent of damage during a earthquake in a region is the type of constructions in it. A common saying, ‘Earthquakes don’t kill, Buildings do’ explains it the best.

When the 2005 quake hit Kashmir, the type of constructions prevalent in Uri and Tanghdar were ill equipped to resist the trembler.

Most of the buildings, both residential and non-residential, in Uri and other areas were made of stone and mud. “Most of the structures which collapsed around were stone constructions. Stone is commonly used in our area for construction purposes because this was the only material available to us for building structures before earthquake,” says Zafar Iqbal, a resident of Garkote, Uri.

Sameer Hamdani, a Senior Architect, with Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) J&K Chapter however opines that more than the choice of material it was the choice of technique used in constructions that took people offguard. “Stone and mud structure can also be constructed earthquake resistant provided they are constructed applying certain norms like proper building codes, proper mortar ratio and proper ratio of openings in the structure,” says Hamdani.

“After 1947, our construction practices changed and Uri is an area which got constructed after 1960’s. So employing new construction practices with little knowledge of the areas and even lesser knowledge of construction techniques accumulated and helped the disaster to cause more damage. They did not use wrong material but what was wrong was the way they were using it.”

Another factor which intensified the impact of disaster was the lack of preparedness. Most of the Non Government Organization’s (NGO’s) which worked in the quake hit areas afterwards believe that neither the structures nor the people were prepared for this disaster. “If an area is prone to a disaster, everything should be in place to mitigate the losses but in Uri nothing was in place.

This lack of preparedness affected the rescue, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts, which in turn resulted in loss of more lives,” says Abdul Jaleel Lone, who was associated with Aga Khan Foundation, an NGO’s which has worked in Uri in rescue and rehabilitation programs. (Lone is presently a consultant for Red R India).

Government is also held responsible for not doing its job properly. “Government delayed their aid and played no role in preparing and making people aware about a natural disaster,” shares Lone.

Zafar Iqbal shares the same views and complains, “Government has been of little help to us, be it before the earthquake or after”.

Sitting on a tinder box

The NGO’s working post quake in Uri and Karnah helped infuse some quake resistant construction techniques into the local practices, but how much did the practices take off, is still a matter of debate.

However, in Srinagar, the only city and the most populated zone in the Kashmir valley, not many have learnt the lessons, that ought to have been.

If the epicenter of 2005 quake had been closer to Srinagar, like it was to Uri or Karnah, the magnitude of destruction would have been manifold, say experts. “I think about 60 to 70 percent of the constructions in Srinagar cannot stand the quake of same intensity, seeing the designs of the infrastructure,” says Younis Kirmani, a civil engineer working with the Public Works Department (PWD).

The engineers and architects in the Valley complain that people prefer to consult masons and carpenters rather than an engineer before constructing a house, so the possibility of constructing a quake-resistant building counts down to zero. It entirely depends on the skill and experience of the mason and the carpenter, as to how well versed they are about the place they are constructing the building in!

“These days’ masons and carpenters are working on their own will. At least earlier we had an edge that our masons and carpenters were skilled and knew about the place they are working in, they had developed that skilled in years and had passed that from generation to generation but now what happens is that we have Bihari masons and carpenters, a person who was a simple labourer in Bihar comes here and construct structures without having any knowledge about the designs and structures of the areas,” says Hamdani.

Apart from the skilled craftsmen of yesteryears, the importance of our indigenous traditional construction style has also been sidelined, despite the fact that they suited our type of areas (seismic zones) better. Experts say that construction practices like Taq and Dajji dewari can save a structure from collapsing even in high intensity tremors.

“Taq, Dajji dewari or structures like Dokas have more resistance against earthquake shocks,” says Hamdani. Taq is a form of timber lacing masonry meaning using large pieces of wood as horizontal runners embedded in the heavy masonry walls. Dhajji-dewari is another form of timber lacing masonry meaning patchwork quilt wall and Dokas are the houses which are exclusively made of wood.

“Traditional at the end of the day is modern,” says Usmaan Ahmed, director of aid group Mercy Corps. “We should revive our traditional constructions because I believe that our ancestors had developed those structures and designs after experiencing many dreadful, deadly earthquakes. What can we do is we can incorporate indigenous style with modern material and methods to have a safe and seismic proof construction,” he adds.

It is not only the traditional type of  construction that can resist earthquakes but the modern Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) constructions can also resist intense tremors very well, if well executed. “Residential structures are usually designed as load bearing structures where walls bear the load. In these structures bands should be placed at different levels like lintel band, slap band, roof band, gable bands and plinth band (if the soil is weak). These bands are used to prevent cracks, separation between walls or even can prevent the collapse of the whole structure. Other important component to strengthen a structure is the usage of vertical steel – it extends from foundation to the roof top of the edifice, usually used at the corners and ties the junctions of walls. It helps the structure to resist high shaking without collapsing,” says Younis Kirmani.

Other important thing says is the ratio of openings in the building, “In a 50 feet running wall the openings (windows and doors) should not exceed 50 percent of the length and cantilevers in our constructions should not exceed 5 feet”.

But what Kirmani and many other engineers inform is that very few people actually implement these norms in their construction, the percentage not even touching double digits.

Geological perspective

“Our recent survey has shown that Kashmir valley lies in Zone V and can generate an earthquake up to 8 or 9 at Richter scale, though on the Indian seismic zone maps only Srinagar city and some of its outskirt parts fall in Zone V but rest falls in Zone IV,” says M I Bhat, the former Head of the Department of Geology, University of Kashmir. According to the geological experts, Kashmir has a history of deadly earthquake in the last couple of centuries.

“Our department is presently working on the identifications of fault line (the lines which generate earthquakes) in Kashmir. We till now have been able to identify one which lies from Shopian to Pakharpora and extends up to Uri with a total separation of 13m. There are many fault lines surely present in the Valley but the intensive cost and (need of) intensive manpower is delaying the work,” adds Professor Bhat.

Earthquake is a result of sudden release of energy from the earth’s crust which generates waves. Earthquakes are mostly caused by rupture of geological faults and its surface trace is called fault line. In Kashmir, the information of the existing fault lines is missing. “We lack microzonation maps as well as the maps which identify the existing fault lines in the Valley,” informs Prof Bhat.

Apart from being a high risk seismic zone, presence of rivers and surrounding mountains further aggravates the impact of the earthquakes in the valley. Prof Bhat says, “We have high slopes which increase the risk of landslides, and much of the Valley is covered with thick unconsolidated (weak) sediments (w?der and river alluvium) most of which is quite saturated with water, which is susceptible to more shaking”.

He also explains the factors which increase the probability for heavy losses both in terms of lives and property, “If we think and observe, all the constructions along by-pass side and Bemina are standing on marshy land, that is, there the soil beneath is very weak; very weak may be to support normal structures which are not constructed to withstand seismic waves of high intensity. So, seismically inferior construction especially the recent ones, high population density, no data relevant to earthquake risk, and, most unfortunately, careless attitude to the known fact drags us nowhere, but more close to the danger”.

Town planning

If the common people are reluctant to learn the lessons, so are the government bodies. Five years after the quake, the housing permission regulations do not require any structural parameters, or earthquake specific guidelines. But, now, the officials say, these are going to be incorporated soon.

Chief Town Planner, Srinagar, Iftikhar Ahmed, told Kashmir Life that his office along with Srinagar Development Authority, Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) and all the directors of local bodies have formulated the list of by-laws which in future will have to be followed to design a structure for residential or non-residential purpose. “We have been working on it for quite some time now, a draft of bylaws is ready which will be implemented soon,” said Ahmed adding, “the permission for the constructions will be now granted in levels, like designs will now be first certified by construction engineer, structural engineer and an architect which will be followed by the normal existing norms which are taken care of by SMC. In case of some failure or damage in the approved/certified structures, the engineers will be directly accountable to the local authorities”.

The preparedness
Almost all existing buildings in the Valley are vulnerable to suffere severe damage in earthquakes as engineers complain that they are not being consulted before starting construction. “People here are not ready to spend money on architects or structural designers, they rather prefer it to spend on the mason or carpenter. In Kashmir a carpenter is preferred over a professional engineer,” says Kirmani.

Sharing similar view Sameer adds, “People here have a very short memory. After the earthquake, for almost a year, people got very cautious about the risks of earthquake and came forward to build structures which are disaster resistant but as the time passed it vanished from their minds”.

The people of Valley are not even psychologically prepared for any disaster. If the population is not aware and prepared, panic at the time of disaster is high which leads to more devastation. “Preparation wise we are at level zero, we completely lack any kind of preparedness which is required for mitigating the losses in a disaster. I suppose government should take serious efforts like include the awareness chapter in the school and college curriculum. We should have high preparation levels and identify safer places in each area which if some disaster occurred can be used,” says Jaleel.

According to analysts and experts, the destruction of earthquake in city will get doubled by unawareness and ill-preparedness. “Our ill-preparedness can lead us to disaster. We need to have preparations like students should have mock drills about what should be done at the time of disaster, local people should have basic first aid trainings, we should have volunteer groups trained with some rescue techniques in every area and many other basic things should be incorporated in us”, says Usmaan Ahmed. “These plans do not need money, but efforts,” concludes Usmaan.


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