A strong earthquake has just struck Pakistan. According to USGS, its epicenter is near Mirpur in Azad Kashmir, a region where earthquakes are very common, and was a 5.8 on the Richter scale and had a very shallow focus of only 10 kilometers deep. The quake has reportedly caused a lot of damage there and has been felt across a very wide area, including most of Punjab and Khyber-Paktunkwha, as well as some parts of India. Reports coming in show that walls and ceilings of several buildings have collapsed and many roads are destroyed. Electricity and cell services have been knocked out. It is too early to assess the damage completely but earlier reports put the toll at 10 dead and 100 wounded, and by 7:30 p.m some say 19 dead and 300 wounded.
The authorities in Pakistan are carrying out urgent rescue and relief operations in the affected areas. Their job is likely to be very challenging. We must not forget that dangers may still persist. Besides the fact that wounded people are in a race against time to be treated, NDMA warns that aftershocks could persist for another twenty-four hours. These aftershocks are going to be smaller than the main earthquake but they could cause serious damage to structures that are already damaged. It is possible that more buildings could collapse in the coming hours or days. We must make sure that more people do not fall victim if such is the case. People are safe from building collapses by not being in the buildings, but it is impracticable for people to spend day and night outside. Hazardous buildings must be identified as soon as possible.
Also, the epicenter of the earthquake is reportedly close to Mangla Dam. Tarbela Dam, which is an earth-filled dam, is also reportedly in the seismic zone. Is there a possibility that these dams have been damaged by the earthquake? If so, then it creates the risk of outburst flood, which could result in a huge disaster. It is very unlikely, because the earthquake was so small, but we must keep close eye on the dams. Besides, anything could happen as a result of an earthquake. What if a major landslide from the hills around Mangla Dam occurs and creates a great tsunami in the reservoir which damages the dam?
People in the earthquake-affected areas will face the challenge of having vital provisions delivered to them. Food, water, and medicine are likely to be in short supply in many areas and have to be delivered. Because of the mountainous terrain in much of the disaster zone and the road damage, this is likely to be difficult. Landslides, rockslides, and avalanches could also have occurred as a result of the earthquake or will occur. If they occur, they are likely to wreak havoc on transportation routes and could also be a direct danger to people.
Most urgent priority is rescuing people from collapsed buildings and other perils and giving medical treatment to wounded people. Damage to roads will be a serious obstacle to both tasks. There should be extensive support coming by way of the air. As usual, Pakistan military has gotten involved and is delivering speedy rescue and relief.
In a situation like this, it is very common for people to crowd around sites of fallen rubble where people may be trapped. The big load of manpower may be very helpful, but crowds of people may engage in harmful behavior. For example, they may make a lot of noise that makes it hard to hear sounds coming from within the rubble. If they collect onto damaged structures, they may cause it to disintegrate further. An earthquake is an immediate calamity and one that occurs in Pakistan’s northern areas will likely not see delivery of help coming immediately. Therefore, relief from the local people themselves, including non-professionals, will be important. But even if they strive to give help, we must make sure they give the right kind of help and not do anything counterproductive.
As for the danger of further structural collapse, it might be best for people to take shelter outside of their homes. Perhaps they can congregate in certain buildings which are very sturdy and show no damage. If people have to be in their homes or in any building which could conceivably collapse, they should take measures to keep themselves safe from the falling debris or rubble. They can stay near the exits so they can rush outside in a moment’s notice. They can place large objects in the house and stay next to it so that falling ceilings or walls may be kept slanted over them, leaving a void below for people to be in. They can maybe build their own shelter inside the house, like creating two piles of furniture and putting one big piece of furniture, like a bed, over them, so people can be in the space below. Then, they can be protected from falling debris.
These are on-the-spot ideas. Best course of action is for the people in the affected area to observe the damage that has happened and assess what kind of further damage could happen and how to safeguard against them.
Since this is an earthquake centered on Azad Kashmir and has reached as wide as northern India, it is reasonable to assume Indian-occupied Kashmir has been affected. Search on the Internet revealed no news about that region. That is a distressing indicator of the blackout which India has imposed on the people there. We have no idea what is going on there, but the suffering of the Kashmiri people due to Modi’s policies has likely been exacerbated by the natural disaster. Medicine is in short supply and hospitals are filled with people injured in violence perpetrated by the state. In these circumstances, Impact of the earthquake can only exacerbate matters further.
As the earthquake is so recent and communication with the affected area is rather difficult, assessment of what has happened may not be complete or finalized yet. But we know it does not seem to be any ordinary earthquake. Felt reports, which are eyewitness observations of an earthquake sent to a concerned agency, are useful for determining the characteristics of the earthquake. I will give my own observation here. I was sitting in an office building with Zeenia Satti, PPLDM’s CEO, sometime after 4 PM and I noticed my chair started to shake. It was a very mild shaking. It was unmistakable but seemed somewhat breezy. There was no sound coming from anywhere. The two of us alarmed the rest of the room and everybody got up to leave the room, but we hesitated in getting out. I thought earthquake was over and sat down on my chair again, but the same shaking persisted. I was surprised. Islamabad rarely sees significant tremors, but this one was both unusually big and unusually long. An earthquake like this must have been very intense in its source area in Kashmir.
We hope that the casualties are minor, that affected people receive adequate help as soon as possible, and that the affected area recovers quickly. Earthquakes can be of any size and strike at any moment. It is vital that people be prepared if there are known fault lines in their region. Such preparation is needed in Pakistan and we should realize that we cannot wait at all in implementing earthquake-ready measures. A repeat of the great 2005 Kashmir earthquake could very well happen again. In fact, what if today’s earthquake was just a foreshock? Hopefully, it is not, but it must serve as a wake-up call for the nation to become earthquake resilient.
Indian Occupied Kashmir merits special international attention now. OCHA should head for IOK.