Uncertain Times

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Are we sitting on a ticking time bomb? Yes, feels experts. But is our government geared up for a Nepal like situation. Is government’s forget and move on response to natural disasters going to prove costly for eventuality prone Kashmir, Saima Bhat finds out   

A collapsed house in 2005 earthquake in Uri. File Pic

A collapsed house in 2005 earthquake in Uri.
File Pic

The destructive earthquake which struck Nepal last week has started to shake ground in Kashmir. Surrounded by mountains, experts while giving reference to various researches claim a ‘deadly’ earthquake may happen any time in Kashmir. With water table already high post September 2014 flood, even a quake of 5 magnitudes can prove fatal, caution experts.

With Himalayan range becoming more fragile, the state of Jammu and Kashmir falls under seismic zone four and five. Fury of nature apart, experts claim that state’s unpreparedness for any kind of natural calamity can prove catastrophic.

In 2005, the state was hit by a 7.6 intensity quake with its epicentre around Muzaffarabad in Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK), that killed over 1 lakh people. After 10 long years, the state is reportedly at the same position where it cannot do anything if, a quake of same magnitude hits the state again.

Post 2005 quake, state was given a number of recommendations but they were never implemented says Saleem Beg, member of National Monuments Authority India. There are a number of disasters that this state is prone to but presently fire related incidents (which have reduced to some extend), flood (ecology related) and earthquakes (building related) are continuously swinging over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, he says.

The state’s disaster management Act of 2005 was formulated in 2007. A nine member committee came into existence to look after this department but the present condition of this department is still a mystery.

Amir Ali, who was then Officer on Special Duty (OSD) with Divisional Commissioner Kashmir for Disaster management refused to comment on the present situation of this department. Instead he said, “It’s not on government’s priority list.”

After 2005 earthquake, for five years, between 2007 and 2012, a team of two headed by Prof Roger Bilham, geologist who studies seismicity of the Himalayan area, of University of Colorado (US) in collaboration with the University of Kashmir carried out a study which has warned of a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the region. The quake would be 200 km wide as against 80 kilometres predicted earlier.

The zone would encompass entire Kashmir including the Srinagar city with its 1.5 million populations. If slippage occurs over a length of 300 kilometres, as is possible, a mega quake of magnitude 9 is likely to occur. Given building codes and population in the region, it could mean a death toll of 300,000 people, the study reads.

Another member of the team Dr Bikram Singh Bali, senior seismologist and Reader at the Department of Earth Science, Kashmir University, says that post-2005 quake, they were apprehensive the quake might had created stress in the Pir Panchal Range but once the study was over they found a lesser amount of vector (magnitude and direction) 2 to 2.5 millimetres, which was not dangerous to create a quake of big magnitude but then his team studied the Zanskar range in Ladakh region and to their surprise they found the vector of 8.5 to 10 millimetres, which can lead to stress build up to 8.5 magnitude quake.

The study states that the major quake is likely to trigger landslides that would ‘dam’ river Jhelum which drains from the Kashmir Valley into Pakistan. Bali was quick to add that even if the seismic activity is more in Zanskar range of mountains but still nobody can predict the actual place and time of the earthquake.

Meanwhile BK Rastogi, Director General of Ahmadabad-based Institute of Seismological research has said that after Nepal quake, “An earthquake of the same magnitude is overdue. That may happen either today or 50 years from now in the region of the Kashmir, Himachal, Punjab and Uttrakhand Himalayas. Seismic gaps have been identified in these regions.”

He said the movement of tectonic plates generates stress over time and rocks at the surface break in response. “The accumulation of stress is going on everywhere. But where it will reach the elastic limit, we don`t know nor also when. But what we do know is that it is happening everywhere.”

However, Dr GM Bhat, professor Geology, the University of Jammu, says there are two spots of Uri-Muzaffarabad and Chamb-Doda, which are continuously witnessing tremors of 3, 4, 4.5 or maximum 5.8 magnitude. “In a way it is a good news as such smaller quake decrease the stress level in these zones. Otherwise J&K state is highly vulnerable to earthquakes as it falls under seismic zone IV (parts of Jammu) and V (Baramulla to Muzaffarabad), rest (centre of state including Srinagar falls under both zones). And we should always be prepared for it.”

But Bhat refutes the prediction of bigger quake claiming Himalayan range is young. “There are 150 years old monitoring stations in US and when they can’t predict the exact time and place of quakes then how come our newly established monitoring stations (GPS) can do that.” Instead he suggests post-September 2014 floods and the continuous rainfall has created a situation in which a quake of 6 or 7 magnitude can create havoc as the water table is a already high.

A tradional Kashmiri house.

A traditional Kashmiri house.

“In such case, if a quake happens and the water content is high, liquefaction happens which in turn can worsen the situation depending upon the content of soil,” says Bhat.

Clay Karewa’s can create mud slides and the sand soil (in encroached wetlands) can prove even more disastrous.

Even if the state government was recommended to go for proper building procedures after 2005 earthquake but on ground nobody was found following those recommendations. Beg says Kashmir has witnessed quakes with more magnitude than 2005 quake but what triggers more destruction is the deviation from the basic building plan or, traditional building structures which was recommended for an earthquake prone areas like J&K state. Disaster management regulations in Kashmir are being violated at large as the new structures are not built as earthquake resistant.

Beg says, “Our state doesn’t have any disaster management plan, it acts only after a disaster happens.” And the traditional building structures which were adopted post ‘great earthquake’ of 1555 are earthquake resistant but the construction of modern designs have put the people on tickling clock.

The presence of wooden tying at each successive floor level provides the required elasticity to the house which behaves like a vertical square block owing to its symmetry. When this block moves, it moves as a unit. The impact on the building is less by severe horizontal movements of the earthquake, keeping the structure largely safe, Beg says.

The traditional architecture of Kashmir was based on two types of techniques – Taq system (timber laced masonry) and Dhajji Dewari (timber framed with masonry infill). This architecture has been the result of the centuries of evolution in building construction on soft soils and making the structures earthquake resistant in Kashmir. The construction techniques focused on the use of available materials and the methods of construction gave structures some kind of flexibility which was essential.

Kashmir isn’t only grappling with chaotic constructions, but off-guard disaster management is equally adding to the woes.

As per the data of various disasters like earthquakes, floods, fires, avalanches, the State government has failed to launch rescue and relief operations immediately after calamities hit the region.

Given the geographical and geo-climatic setting of the state, experts says it is a multi-hazard prone region and has experienced natural disasters like 2005 and 2007 earthquakes, September 2014 flood and the other great floods of the century, landslides, Waltengu avalanches, high velocity winds, and snowstorms, Leh cloudburst.

Dr Suhail Masoodi, director CRDP, who has done research in disaster management says, “We do not learn lessons from the disasters. When earthquake hit Uri (Baramulla) and Tangdar (Kupwara) in 2005, everyone talked about the earthquake and preparedness of the people against earthquakes for a year. But then ultimately people forget and same happened after floods.”

He adds state is not at all ready to handle any kind of natural catastrophe and while giving example of September 2014 floods, he says Jhelum flows on an average at around 40,000 cusecs and in 1902 floods it flowed at 80000 cusecs, but this time it was around 1.3 lakh cusecs. The river was overflowing three times more than its original capacity. The water had to go somewhere and it entered into water bodies and wetlands like Mehjoor Nagar, Sonwar etc. Government besides planning an alternate flood spill channel should go for dredging of the river Jhelum to increase its capacity.

“100 years back when we used to have floods, we had wetlands where flood water used to go. But with wetlands encroached where will the water go now?” says Dr Masoodi.

Even our newly constructed hospitals and schools are not earthquake proof structures. “Another disaster in the making is Kishan Ganga hydro project in Gurez which will release its water in Wullar Lake, which in turn would flood its adjoining areas. Why don’t government think over that?” says Dr Masoodi.

Saleem Beg alleges that government has made plan only for Srinagar after September 2014 floods, while about 70 percent of the damage happened outside it.

After floods, the World Bank has earmarked US $25 million for enhancing JK’s disaster risk management capacity.

Under the disaster strengthening component, the State would undertake morphological study of rivers, urban vulnerability assessment and will prepare a hydro-meteorological resilience action plan.

In addition to that TATA institute of social sciences, Mumbai has submitted its comprehensive 233 page report on disaster management plan for the state.

The state has a separate wing of State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) of police. This force was created in 2012, when existing two Battalions of Auxiliary Police were converted as SDRF. Having around 2,000 members, this force works during natural calamities only and for the rest of the time they remain workless.

As per a source, “One constable of SDRF has a salary of Rs 20 thousand. Now you can imagine how much an inspector, DSP and others get.”

Despite such a huge workforce at its disposal one will be surprised to know whenever there is a natural calamity state has to seek help from NDRF. “Do our government needs to be shaken before they wake up?” asks Dr Bali.

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