SAARC Capitals Vulnerable for Earthquakes

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Republic Of India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are a group of countries that constitute what is known as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The capitals of these countries are at Kabul, Dhaka, Thimpu, New Delhi, Male, Katmandu, Islamabad and Colombo respectively. The association formed in 1985 has a charter which is aimed at helping each other to improve the quality of life of the people of the region.

It is quite a coincidence that the capitals of these countries are beseeched with one common natural hazard, i.e. earthquakes. Amongst these, Delhi happens to be the most densely populated Capital and very much prone to earthquakes. The first semi-scientific record of earthquakes in India is that of Delhi-Agra earthquake of July 15 1505. A major earthquake rocked Delhi again and the date coincidentally happened to be July 15 though the year was 1720. It was 22nd Ramzan and people had assembled in the mosques to offer prayers. They were perhaps their last prayers! Many people lost their lives in Shahjehanabad (New Delhi) and Old Delhi. After this Kaifikhan a historian, writer recorded in his ‘Muntakhabul-Ul-Lulab’ that similar shocks continued to terrorize Delhi for 40 days. On September 1, 1803, the Mathura-Delhi region was rocked at 3 A.M. Mathura suffered the maximum damage. Delhi was also severely affected and the top portion of the famous Kutubminar tumbled down.  

The risk of earthquakes in the Capitals of SAARC region, especially of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanamar and Sri Lanka is increasing every day. It is becoming riskier because of the rise in population. More people mean more houses and more houses means more people getting crushed underneath.  

Out of the above countries, the capitals like Kabul, Islamabad, Dhaka, Katmandu, Naypyidaw the new capital of Myanmar and Thimpu the capitol of Bhutan all are within the Himalayan realm. The Himalayas form a gigantic arch with its convex side towards the Ganga plains. It is like a bow, with Delhi situated nearest to the peak convexity. All these capitals have their own stories of past earthquakes. We all are aware and though our short-lived memories we just refuse to retain the tragic stories from our minds barely within three to four years of the tragedy. A bit of history of some of the great earthquakes should serve as a reminder about the seismic vulnerability of these upcoming capitals which are challenging the world with their rapid pace of development. Unfortunately these are the places where the human lives are at maximum risk because of the possibility of destructive earthquakes. 

The south Asian region has a history of catastrophic earthquakes says D.D. Joshi a seismologist from Geological Survey of India in the Journal of South Asia Disaster studies. A great or a major earthquake in the modern times, in this region may create havoc with huge loss of life and property due to high population density and huge infrastructure investment he further adds. 

In the recent year the Bhuj earthquake of 2001 caused huge destruction with 13,805 lives lost, thousands injured and about 1,205,198 houses damaged. The financial loss would run in to billions of Rupees. This was followed by the Indian Ocean earthquake of 2004 which caused the tsunami that killed more than 225,000 people in 11 countries. It was described as one of the worst disasters in history at that point of time. Sri Lanka and Maldives were worst hit by this event. And once again the Himalayan kingdom was rocked which took a toll of 73,000 lives in Pakistan and 1400 lives in India in 2005.

The root cause of a tsunami is often an earthquake. It is like a sister of the earthquake. Fortunately, land-locked capitals are least affected by a tsunami, but it is a bane for Sri Lanka and Maldives. The impact of tsunami may be imperceptible in the Hindukush-Himalaya belt, but the coastal belt of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan is drastically affected. On 28 November 1945 an earthquake of 8.1Mw at Makran, Pakistan generated a devastating tsunami which broke the under water telecom cables. Materialistic losses apart this tsunami caused considerable sea floor changes in the western off shore region.

Here it must be understood that often we read of terms like the Indian plate moving northwestwards etc. A picture of a gigantic hand holding a giant plate like an expert butler holding a tray packed with crystal glasses filled up to the brim, arm raised above his shoulders and moving with dexterity through the crowd on the dance floor appears. It is not so. Instead of one there is a jigsaw of sub-terranean plates moving slowly, albeit imperceptibly, as if guided by a supernatural power! Since it is a jigsaw, even if one element moves differentially or hits an obstacle it can cause turmoil at the surface where the petty human being rules.

The mechanism of the nature is quite complicated in the matters of tsunami or even an earthquake. A tsunami could be generated as an orphan that is without an earthquake-a marine slide or a rift in the sea floor could cause it. Bendick and Bilham, two American seismologists worked out an ancient orphan tsunami which affected the ships of Vasco da Gama south of Bombay coast in 1542. Similarly, an earthquake of magnitude 7.4 in February 1944 near Maldives Islands confirms them too to be vulnerable for major earthquakes. The epicenter of this earthquake coincided with the N-S running Chagos-Laccadives mega-shear. That is, a giant fault plane in the Indian Ocean. This shear is one of the driving lines of the Indian plate motion. This further attests the seismic vulnerability of the Maldives. Sri Lanka, earlier considered to be comparatively safe from killer earthquakes, too has started having episodes of earthquakes within the island and also nearby. There has been a gradual increase in the strain building process in the sub-surface of Sri Lanka that is why it is experiencing small magnitude earthquakes.

The interior of the earth is not placid as the hard, rocky lithosphere which houses us all appears to be. The interior of the earth with very high temperatures maintains a molten mass of material termed lava upon reaching the surface. The jigsaw of plates as it keeps moving due to the heat generated in the interior of the earth keeps slipping; often one large plate collides with the other-as in Indian and Tibetan plate collision. So powerful was the collision that the Indian plate was sub ducted underneath the Tibetan plate. The process still continues. The gaps created in the process are often filled by the molten material from underneath. All to all the inter-plate marginal areas are always restless and so are our Himalayas.

The tectonic instability of the Himalayas is not hidden, it is an open secret. If we think of a future plan of development then we must think in terms of making Islamabad, Kathmandu, Thimpu, Dhakka and New Delhi safe zones. We can not create a structure which can be called cent percent earthquake proof-even the God could not create such a structure. But at least we can develop and insist for earthquake safe housing, as done in Japan. Had they not done it, today after the recent earthquake more than half of Japan would have been a heap of ruble.

Despite so many examples in front of us, we are thinking of developing, constructing structures which can fall like a pack of cards with a minor shaking. Let us be sensible and formulate a long term plan. It should have a plan to systematically develop a strategy to counter any earthquake and tsunami in the SAARC countries. This will include a systematic study of the past earthquakes and a data-informatics group of SAARC nations could sit together to formulate a system of exchange of information and develop earthquake safe designs of structures. Mere designs will be of no use unless the governments and the people of these countries are made to understand the utility and advantages of such structures and designs.

About our structures, Charles Francis Richter, the American seismologist and the founder of the Richter scale of earthquakes had aptly said: “In every area of the world there is earthquake risk, there are still many buildings of this type; it is very frustrating to get rid of them.”   


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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