The deadliest quake

We have not understood why the Kashmir Earthquake of 8 October has been termed the 'South Asia Quake' by the international media, including by the all-powerful, real-time satellite television networks. Southasia is a vast region and the ground trembled beneath one corner, well-known to the world as Kashmir, on two sides of a Line of Control. Somehow, it does injustice to the suffering of the living and the memory of the dead to call the disaster by the name of the larger region. The UN has declared the Kashmir catastrophe as more devastating than last year's tsunami. There are three to four million people suddenly without homes on the edge of winter, while Kofi Annan has stated that "there are not enough winterised tents in the world to meet the needs we have today".

The tsunami struck on the southern beaches of Southasia, while the earthquake hit the northwestern mountain fastness. The tsunami was, of course, also the result of an undersea earthquake; but because it was more unusual than a land quake, and also due to the fact that many holidaying Westerners died tragically, the emergency support was of a significantly different magnitude than what the Kashmir Earthquake is garnering. The world is not even close to matching the USD 11 billion gathered to date for post-tsunami relief. Barely a third of the requested USD 312 million emergency assistance requirement set by the UN had been filled two weeks after the Kashmir quake. During the same initial period, more than 80 percent of the announced needs had been filled after the tsunami struck.

In the face of an earthquake that knows neither borders nor lines of control, significant time has already been given over to the need to utilise the opportunity to ease the Kashmir tensions between India and Pakistan. We are heartened by the admittedly halting moves made by the two administering powers to make family contact possible across the LoC, and to allow relief organisations to work in these sensitive areas. Indeed, may the terrible tragedy provide some extra empathy for the people of Kashmir and their aspirations, particularly in New Delhi and Islamabad.

But let us quickly add that the geopolitical certitude in national capitals will require something more than a shifting of geological plates to undo the mental shackles. It will require the national establishments in both countries – including the geopolitical strategists, media elites and civil society gatekeepers – to understand that a Kashmir resolution will require taking into confidence the Kashmiris themselves, as well as finding a way to fuzz borders and sanction dual identities. In this time of tragedy, it is important to remind everyone that the answers still lie in the past propositions of great Southasians, such as the late Eqbal Ahmad (see Himal March 1999).

The immediate challenge in Muzaffarabad, in Uri, in Hazara, in Tangdhar, is to help those without shelter and means of livelihood to make it through the winter of 2005-06. But thereafter, we are looking at many years of rehabilitation, starting with psychological support and ending with the rebuilding of homes, schools and bridges. Given the sharp drop that we can expect in humanitarian concerns as soon as the television cameras stop broadcasting, the intelligentsia of Pakistan, India and Southasia have a responsibility not to turn their backs on this quake and its living victims. They have to stay with the Kashmiris for the long haul of recovery and rehabilitation, with the understanding that while the voluntary agencies must be thanked, it is ultimately the governments that must constantly be kept on their toes for the follow-through.

Impending calamity

From the southeast to the northwest along the Himalayan ridgeline, the effects of earthquakes on Southasia are as old as geological time. These events are, after all, dictated by the shifting of tectonic plates as the Subcontinent collides with the continent, generating a friction that needs to be regularly released. The tortured geography of Kashmir on the surface reflects the complexity of plate activity underneath, where three tectonic forces pull at and against one another – particularly in the region just northwest of Muzaffarabad.

This year, nature chose Kashmir to sound a warning to the rest of Southasia – most importantly, to those who live along the Himalayan-Hindukush rimland. The geologists are not sitting easy, and neither should the rest of us. Seismologist Roger Bilham, who has warned of upcoming quake catastrophes in the Central Himalaya in these pages (see Himal March 1994), notes that the 8/10 quake probably did not release more than "one-tenth of the cumulative elastic energy" that has built up since Kashmir's last substantial quake, back in the middle of the sixteenth century.

According to Bilham and others, the prospect looms of a horrendous earth-shaking in what is known as the Central Himalayan Gap – essentially engulfing the entire country of Nepal. This is created by the fact that there has not been enough necessary release of 'cumulative elastic energy' in the rubbing of plates beneath Nepal and the nearby regions to the north, west and south. A huge swath of the Himalaya is dramatically overdue – by about two decades, if a timeframe can be put to such raw natural processes – for a devastating quake. This impending earthquake would put an estimated 50 million people in direct risk in hill and plain.

The people who live in the general region known as the Central Himalaya must therefore take heed of what has happened in Kashmir. If necessary, key policymakers must immediately make field visits to Kashmir on both sides, to be sensitised to the scale of devastation. This might give them a sense of what 'disaster preparedness' ought to be all about. The suffering of Kashmiris may at least inform those who are in a position to save lives when the earthquake hits the Central Himalaya.

Concrete deathtraps

The last big earthquake to hit the Himalayan region, in 1934, was known as the Great Bihar Earthquake. That was before the advent of cement, concrete and the modern technologies that have abandoned handed-down techniques. Cement and concrete have become the building medium of choice all over, because these 'pillar system' buildings provide flat roofs for multipurpose uses, wide indoor spaces, and lots of light. Unfortunately, heavy concrete floors and roofs in buildings with poorly designed foundations or pillars become deathtraps. All over Kashmir, people were crushed under concrete, as testified to by the numerous photographs of rescue workers trying to cut through cement and steel. Built poorly cement construction is dangerously frail, but the technology has with lightning speed supplanted or made 'obsolete' many of the region's traditional, evolved construction technologies.

The non-existence of rescue infrastructure should worry everyone throughout the region. Take the rapidly urbanising Kathmandu Valley, which would be a valley of death if the upcoming earthquake were to hit with full force. Unplanned urbanisation, a lack of building code implementation linked to continuous political instability, reliance on cement-concrete poured by artisans without engineering oversight, unavailability of open-spaces – these are just some of the concerning issues for those who have to plan for the day when the earth will tremble. The dynamic known as 'liquefaction' – when sand will become fluid and bring houses crashing down – is a particular worry. The Tribhuvan airport is itself built on an international sandbank, which may make it unusable.

Kathmandu Valley, as the largest urban agglomeration in the entire Himalayan chain, is obviously a place of extreme concern for what may happen to its 1.6 million inhabitants. But there would be deep stress throughout the Himalaya and its adjacent plains and plateaus. Landslides would bury homes, roads and other infrastructure. Glacial lakes in the High Himalaya would burst their banks, wreaking havoc downstream all the way to the plains. Levees may be destroyed; dams may crack; pipelines may break; and electric lines may collapse. As the most fortified region in Southasia, in Kashmir there were at least military helicopters available on both sides for immediate rescue. There would be no such facility elsewhere in the Himalayan region, where response times would be much longer than was seen in Kashmir in October 2005.

Being crushed beneath the weight of concrete, cement, earth and rocks is a terrible way to die. To die under rubble while awaiting rescue that never comes is even more gruesome. Kashmir will have to be helped back on its feet, while we look ahead to the next big one – and prepare.

Militants and the quake

In the aftermath of the 8 October 2005 quake in Azad Kashmir, relief camps and operations have been established by many banned jihadi groups and charities. In response to the government's appeals for donations, the general public has in turn donated heavily to these projects. Indeed, the quake itself seems to have given a new lease on life to many of the banned groups, previously proscribed by Islamabad and Washington DC for their al-Qaeda links and alleged terrorist involvement. These have included Jamaat-ud-Daawa/Lashkar-e-Toiba; the Harkatul Mujahideen and Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, with alleged al-Qaeda links; and the al-Rashid Trust, which funds the Jaish-e-Mohammad. On government orders, militant-run relief camps have been allowed to operate in a variety of hard hit areas, including Muzaffarabad, Rawlakot, Bagh, Balakot, and the Neelum and Jhelum valleys. Doing so has not only bolstered the groups' images, but has reportedly won significant gratitude and support from the general public.

Talat Masood, a former army general and political analyst, worries jihadi groups are being strengthened by the goodwill. "They are working on the pattern of Hamas and Hezbollah", he noted. "Both organisations maintain elaborate political and social service infrastructures, designed to provide extremist ideological direction and social welfare services in environments of poor or nonexistent government control, in order to build-up and maintain popular support."

President Musharraf initially claimed in a 20 October interview to have ensured that organisations working in the quake-hit areas are not ones that have been banned by his government. He later qualified that statement: "I know that some extremist outfits placed on [the government's] watch list are participating in relief activities in the quake-affected areas," he admitted. "Their activities are being watched closely and anyone found involved in extremist acts will be punished. However, everyone is motivated to help the quake victims. I am not going to prevent anyone from helping the people."

Amir Mir

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