Frequent earthquakes a reminder of the vulnerabilities of the Himalayan region

A view of Indian Himalayas from Leh.

  • On March 21, people across several north Indian states experienced a strong tremor as an earthquake of 6.6 magnitude hit Afghanistan.
  • Studies say that enough strains have been accumulated in the Himalayan region that indicate a likelihood of severe earthquakes in the future.
  • Despite the warning, it is tough to predict the exact time of the earthquake and experts suggest that precaution is the key to minimise loss.

Following strong tremors that were felt in several states of North India on March 21, many people in Delhi and northern states rushed to the streets. As per the National Centre for Seismology, an earthquake of 6.6 magnitude on the Richter Scale had occurred at Fayzabad, Afghanistan, at 10.17 pm. and its the tremors were felt across Pakistan and several states of North India, including Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi.

Experts warn that frequent tremors and earthquakes are a wake-up call, particularly for states in the Himalayan region. They call for preventive measures to minimise damages as there could be a likelihood of a severe earthquake in the region.

A study in 2020 says the Himalayan region is seismically one of the most active continental regions. Enough strains have been accumulated to trigger earthquakes of more than eight magnitudes on the Richter Scale. There are estimates that these earthquakes can impact a million lives.

The majority of states in Himalayan regions fall in zone IV and V. As per the seismic zoning map prepared by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), with zone V reflecting the highest seismic risk. As per the map, Kashmir valley, the western part of Himachal Pradesh, the eastern part of Uttarakhand, part of northern Bihar, and all north-eastern states fall in zone V.

By Ministry of Earth Science.
A graphical representation of seismic zones in India. Photo by Ministry of Earth Science/Wikimedia Commons.

Ladakh, the remaining part of J&K, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, parts of Haryana and Punjab, Delhi, and Sikkim fall in zone IV. Gujarat, Western Rajasthan, Andaman & Nicobar Islands are vulnerable too.

According to official figures of the Indian Meteorological Department, on an average, over 30 earthquakes occur annually in J&K. In the last five years, around 150 earthquakes have hit J&K, mostly with a magnitude of 3 to 5. In Uttarakhand, in the last ten years, more than 700 earthquakes have occured.

Given the vulnerabilities of these states, experts feel that it is best to be prepared in the event of a major earthquake. Director of the Meteorological Department, J&K, Sonam Lotus said, “We cannot predict an earthquake’s timing, magnitude, and origin. Since J&K is vulnerable to disasters, we must be well prepared to deal with any such natural disaster,” Lotus said.

Indian Meteorological Department Centre in Srinagar to measure earthquake in Kashmir. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo.
Indian Meteorological Department Centre in Srinagar to measure earthquake in Kashmir. Enough strains have been accumulated to trigger earthquakes of more than eight magnitudes in the Himalayan region. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo.

A geologist and retired professor from Jammu University, Manzoor Ahmad Malik said this part of the Himalayas has been facing frequent earthquakes due to active seismic activity. “Studies indicate that a high magnitude earthquake could occur in Kashmir Himalayas, but we can’t predict the timing. Since we have a fragile ecosystem, we need adequate safeguards to minimise the damages,” he told Mongabay-India.

Preparation is the key

President of the Geological Society of India, Harsh K. Gupta said it was difficult to say when and where a damaging earthquake would occur in the region. “Several parts of the Himalayan region, including J&K, Uttarakhand, and various parts of northeast India , are vulnerable to earthquakes. We have to live with earthquakes. There has to be strict implementation of the safety from earthquakes methodology in all constructions. There has to be training for school students about earthquake safety. There has to be the deployment of earthquake early warning systems along the Himalayan belt. We also have to observe earthquake safety day in the vicinity of the Himalayan earthquake belt like what is being done in Nepal on January 16 every year,” Gupta stressed.

Manual Seismograph to measure the magnitude of earthquakes in Kashmir. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo
Manual Seismograph to measure the magnitude of earthquakes in Kashmir. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo.

He said that following the devastating earthquake in 2001, the Gujarat Government set up the Institute of Seismological Research in 2003. “Over the years, the Institute has done commendable work on earthquake hazard assessment and developing an earthquake-resistant society in Gujarat,” he said.

He claimed that the earthquake early warning system (EEWS) has been successfully implemented in Uttarakhand. “The system, which consists of 169 seismic sensors in an oval-shape of the network, 280 km east-west and 120 km north-south stretch, successfully alerted Uttarakhand citizens of the three moderate earthquakes on November 9, 2022, (magnitude 5.8), November 12, 2022, (M 5.4) and January 24, 2023 (M 5.8). These earthquakes were not likely to cause any damage in Uttarakhand. The appropriate functioning of the EEWS in Uttarakhand is a very welcome development, and similar systems need to be installed in several locations in the vicinity of the Himalayan earthquake belt,” he suggested.

Other than these interventions, people also need to be aware of several precautionary steps, they can take at their level.

Elaborating further, Malik of Jammu University stresses enforcing building codes. “We have to build earthquake-resistant structures. Building codes need to be followed. God forbid if an earthquake of the magnitude that hit Turkey occurs in India or Pakistan, there will be more damage. So far, 50,000 people have lost their lives in the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria in February.”

“We need trained engineers and masons to construct earthquake-resistant structures, including houses, buildings, flyovers, or bridges. We need to organise workshops for masons to train them and also create awareness programmes among masses about disasters,” he added.

BIS has published Indian standards for earthquake-resistant design and construction of buildings and structures. National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has published a simplified version too.

Experts opine that people should be encouraged to follow these codes. Mohammad Sultan, a professor at the University of Kashmir who has worked extensively on disaster management, said Kashmir is a sensitive seismic zone. “For every construction, building codes have been given, but as per earthquake standards are not followed in letter and spirit. Very less focus is being paid to make buildings earthquake resistant,” he said.

Digital seismograph to measure magnitude of earthquake in Kashmir. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo.

He said the foundation of any construction has to be strong. “In Kashmir, there used to be traditional houses, dhaji dewari, which were earthquake resistant and evolved in response to the climate. They were far more robust than modern constructions and could sustain earthquakes. They had lesser chance to collapse even during severe earthquakes,” he said.

Sultan said people should consult an expert before constructing a house. “The construction site should be selected on the advice of these experts. Further, we should follow their advice in building planning and construction. These experts should also decide the depth of the foundation keeping into consideration soil type, sand or rocks, and also how much material like iron, cement, wood, bricks, or stones should be used. They will also decide which design could be made at a particular place. All these factors will make a great difference if implemented on the ground,” he added.

Irfan Rashid, who teaches at the Department of Geo-informatics, University of Kashmir, also called for proper coding of buildings to make earthquake-resistant structures. “In Srinagar outskirts, we have seen constructions have come up on wetlands. These areas will suffer more damages during any major earthquake,” he said.


Banner image: Studies say that enough strains have been accumulated to trigger earthquakes of more than eight magnitudes in the Himalayan region. Photo by Abdulsayed/Wikimedia Commons.

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