The Perilous Beauty of the Kashmir Valley
By Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
Mohammad Khar remembers exactly where he was the morning of Kashmir’s most severe earthquake: on a building site visit in Islamabad. He felt the tremor, 80 kilometres away from the quake’s epicenter, in Muzaffarabad, and rushed inside to switch on the news. When he heard what was happening in his hometown, he sank to his knees and cried. It would be nearly a week before he knew for sure that his wife and five children had died, crushed beneath their home as it fell.
Mohammad’s story is far from unusual, and the pain in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy soon turned to anger: Nature cannot be controlled, but the earthquake should not have claimed so many lives. Sub-standard construction methods, less than rigorous disaster planning and stalled rescue attempts all took a fatal toll.
This catastrophic earthquake measured 7.6 on the moment magnitude scale and struck Kashmir on October 8, 2005. The official death toll in Pakistan reached 87,350 and an estimated 1,400 died across the Line of Control in India. The international community sent US$5.4 billion in aid, as well as helicopters from the Royal Air Force and US marines, though critics claimed it was too little, too late.
The Kashmir Valley in the Indian Himalayas has two very different sides: the Mughal Emperors described it as heaven on Earth, and yet the same tectonic movements responsible for the extraordinary beauty of the natural skyline have periodically wrought death and destruction on the communities living here. The slightest tremor brings buildings crashing down, and whole towns can slide from the hillside.
Imtiaz Bhatt is a surveyor in Srinagar, and since the earthquake, he has been campaigning for tighter building controls. He has calculated that building earthquake-resistant homes only adds two to four percent to construction costs in Kashmir; local families are willing and able to bear the cost, but they need to be told what to do. Building codes do exist in both India and Pakistan, but they are rarely enforced.
There’s a lack of scientific knowledge about this earthquake and others that might follow on. Seismic instruments in the area are old and poorly maintained. As well, the foreign seismic scientists able to properly analyse the local fault lines – and thereby predict the likelihood of major quakes in the future – have had limited access to the area. In 2011, Roger Bilham of Colorado University warned of the possibility of a future quake dwarfing even that in 2005, based on his studies of GPS data about rock movements in the area, but he’s been denied visas to travel to Pakistan to verify the movements firsthand.
Thousands of people died not on October 8 itself, but in the days and weeks that followed. Volunteers from the Tzu Chi Foundation recall the horror stories of children buried alive beneath their collapsed school, dying not from the quake but from the dust and dehydration. Overwhelmed rescuers simply couldn’t reach them in time. Three million people lost their homes in a single morning. In Kashmir in October, the nights are already cold, and tents and blankets did not arrive in substantial numbers for a fortnight. The arrival of medical supplies and doctors took a similar amount of time.
We don’t know how many people might have survived if Pakistan had been better prepared. What we do know is it won’t be the last quake in Kashmir, and both India and Pakistan should work on the basis of inevitability. Local people need more information from seismologists and also the know-how to build homes that can survive the force of Nature. Supplies of blankets, tents and other disaster-relief items need to be stockpiled in multiple locations locally, and distribution plans need to be put in place.
No one is responsible for earthquakes happening; everyone is responsible for what happens after.
For more stunning stories and photographs from this issue, check out Asian Geographic Issue 109.