‘Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do’: Kashmir’s vulnerable infrastructures

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The sudden jolts had brought residents onto the streets at 10:30 pm, on a bitterly cold February night, as strong tremors of magnitude 6.1 stunned Kashmir. Another one followed, lasting several seconds.

The visuals of damaged residential structures in north and central Kashmir rekindled the memories of 2005 when a massive earthquake killed 1,500 people and collapsed 4,50,000 buildings. The erratic electricity supply further fueled the panic.

Kashmir — located in a seismic Zone V, or a very high-risk zone — continues to struggle with frequent quakes. Since last year, the Valley has faced nearly 100 tremors; some had epicenters near Srinagar, as per the data on the National Center for Seismology.

However, experts told The Kashmir Walla that it is not the quakes, essentially, but the poor infrastructure that has been rendering losses.

Imtiyaz Ahmed Parvez, Senior Principal Scientist at Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research, who has been working in Kashmir Himalayas for the last eight years, said that the infrastructure, particularly the houses, is poorly constructed in Kashmir and lacks “earthquake-resistant engineering”.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do,” he said, adding that the regulation of building construction is a must and existing houses must go for retrofitting.

Seismic Zone-V

The country is broadly divided into three geological units – the Himalaya, the Indo-Gangetic Plain, and the Indian shield. The reason behind frequent earthquakes in Kashmir, part of the Himalaya, “is the collision between Eurasian and the Indian plate,” said Parvez.

Formed after the continental collision of Indian and Eurasian plates nearly 40 million years ago, the Himalayan mountains were uplifted as a result of enormous pressure. And the Indian plate is still moving, said Parvez, along the collision boundary with different rates that causes friction — such deformation rates, particularly in Kashmir, are 14-16 millimeters/year; when such stress exceeds the limit, energy is released leading to earthquakes.”

The historical seismicity of the Kashmir valley and the adjoining region indicates about fourteen damaging earthquakes have occurred since the year 1123. At the same time, the majority of Srinagar’s buildings are not earthquake-resistant, and the city’s preparedness for earthquakes is extremely poor, according to the District Disaster Management (DDM) Plan 2020 Srinagar.

The plan also warned: “The people, the houses, the public buildings, and entire property in the district is at risk and a large earthquake can cause extensive damage to life and property.”

Bilquees Dar, Consultant Disaster Management Department (DMD), added that “most of the buildings in Kashmir can’t bear higher intensity level earthquakes,” while the frequent mild tremors have lessened the strength of the walls of the structures in Kashmir.

“It has also developed cracks so there is a possibility that if this continues, it would result in the collapse of such structures any time due to fewer intensity earthquakes as well,” said Dar.

Since there are no early warning systems in place in Kashmir, people should always be prepared for any eventuality as the region is recognized for earthquake occurrences.

“To bring things under control, DMD should have high-resolution maps in terms of expected ground motion, expected loss of life, and properties, which are essential for mitigating the risks and disaster management,” said Parvez.

In eventuality, as per the DDM Plan, people living in unsafe areas would be asked to migrate to safer areas based on expert research, and the government would find areas that are reasonably secure for raising habitations.

Techniques and measures

In Kashmir, Dajji Dewar — a traditional construction system in Kashmir using the thinner style of wall construction consisting of timber framing with bricks or stone masonry infills, now replaced by modern techniques of a building — method is preferred to make buildings resistant up to a certain level of intensity, said Dar.

“If earthquake-resistant technology is used in the construction of buildings, such structures can withstand earthquakes up to a certain magnitude,” the DDM Plan noted.

Apart from unsafe construction, the other factors that make people vulnerable to the damaging impact of an earthquake are the congested localities and construction of houses in areas prone to erosion. Even in rural areas now, as per the plan, there is a shift towards the construction of brick and mortar houses, stacked back to back without proper planning. “This is quite dangerous in an earthquake-prone area,” it further warned.

However, Parvez said that the only measure that can be taken in earthquake zones is to assess the earthquake hazard and risk in such seismically prone areas and go for the safe design of buildings and other infrastructure.

According to Dar, the measures for damage control should begin from awareness and sensitization of all the citizens about preparedness measures, necessary in order to foster a culture of preparedness for the next generations.

“An adequate number of trained human resources having expertise in managing any eventuality should be made available at all levels to respond quickly to any incident,” she said.

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