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Is Jammu & Kashmir at risk of a big earthquake?

Parts of J&K (Srinagar, Ganderbal, Baramulla, Kupwara, Bandipora, Budgam, Anantnag in Kashmir and parts of Jammu region, Doda, Ramban, Kishtwar) are in the earthquake-prone Seismic Zone V.

Srinagar / March 19, 2023 / 10:16 AM IST
Most of the earthquakes that have hit J&K lately had their origin in the Hindukush region of Afghanistan. (Photo by Sanket Barik via Pexels)

Most of the earthquakes that have hit J&K lately had their origin in the Hindukush region of Afghanistan. (Photo by Sanket Barik via Pexels)

Social media has been rife with unsubstantiated predictions of a devastating earthquake in Jammu & Kashmir "any time soon". J&K has experienced 17 tremors over the last 10 weeks—five of magnitude 4.0 or above, 10 of magnitude between 3.0 and 4.0, and two between 2.0 and 3.0. But is there any truth to the claims that a big one could be around the corner?

The massive earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023 (there was another big earthquake there on February 21) has stoked fear of an earthquake's potential for destruction, and spotlighted the importance of early warnings and preparedness.

The devastating earthquake which hit Turkey and Syria left 45000 people dead has raised alarm bells in earthquake prone areas across the world with experts recommending a robust strategy for earthquake risk assessment.

On March 18, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter Scale hit Ecuador - it claimed at least 13 lives and injured over 100 people. Assam saw earthquakes of 3.6 and 2.8 magnitude on the same day.

In February, National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) researchers had also issued a warning for an earthquake in the Himalayas that could potentially affect Uttarakhand and Nepal.

History of earthquakes in J&K

About 14 devastating earthquakes have occurred in J&K since the year 1123. The most devastating earthquake occurred in 1885, with its epicentre in north Kashmir’s Baramulla - the strong quake left 3,600 people dead. An earthquake measuring 6.2 magnitude struck the region in 1962. In 2013, there was an earthquake of magnitude 5.7 on the Richter Scale, and on October 26, 2017, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake left three people dead in the region.

Government data show that around 60 earthquakes hit J&K and Ladakh in 2022. In 2017, 19 earthquakes were reported in Kashmir, compared to nine in 2016. In 2015, 27 tremors were witnessed, including the 7.5 magnitude earthquake on October 26. Nineteen earthquakes hit J&K in 2014 amid major floods. In 2013, 2012, and 2011, the region recorded 25, 11 and 7 tremors, respectively. The year 2010 and 2009 witnessed 6 and 9 earthquakes, respectively.

The National Center for Seismology (NCS) data show the region has seen several “moderate to large earthquakes” from time to time. Between 2008 and 2020, J&K has witnessed 164 earthquakes, but most of them have been of magnitude less than 5 on the Richter Scale.

Chances of an earthquake

Most of the earthquakes that have hit J&K lately had their origin in the Hindukush region of Afghanistan. The back-to-back tremors have forced seismologists to believe that J&K should brace to face a big earthquake in the near future.

Although there are no proper means to predict earthquakes, experts have issued warnings from time to time about the historical seismicity of the region. For instance, in December 2011, a US-based seismologist Roger Bilham of the Colorado University warned that the accumulated stress in the region could potentially produce a devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake.

Bilham who is known for his GPS work in the Himalayas added that despite the deaths and trail of destruction in the wake of the 2005 earthquake, little or no significant measures have been taken on the ground level in J&K. “Except for holding a few earthquake awareness programmes, the J&K government has done nothing to reduce the likely impact of the impending disaster. Construction activity goes on haphazardly without any concern for soil conditions or topography or building codes,” Bilham has said.

"The zone would encompass the Kashmir Valley, including the Srinagar city with its 1.5-million strong population," Bilham’s study said. "If slippage occurs over a length of 300 kilometres, as is possible, a mega quake of magnitude-9 is likely to occur. Given building codes and population in the region, it could mean a death toll of 300,000 people," the study added.

Dr Riyaz Ahmad Mir, a senior geologist, told Moneycontrol that Kashmir is a part of the Great Himalaya that has formed as a result of collision between the Eurasian tectonic plate and Indian Plate millions of years ago. “The Indian plate has been moving northwards from the southern hemisphere for millions of years and is still in motion along the collision boundary with the Eurasian Plate. The motion is, however, relatively very small and different with an average rate of about 3-5cm/year in different sectors of the Himalaya. This movement obviously builds stress and causes friction between these two plates. As a result, when such stress exceeds the limits, energy is released, causing shaking effects and we experience earthquakes.”

As the tectonic plates are still shifting in the region, the occurrence of earthquakes in the region is unavoidable, Mir said. The active tectonics shaping the topography, geomorphology, geological and structural set-up of the region act as an visible indication of stress buildup in the area.

The Indian Meteorological Department has notified most parts of Kashmir - covering the districts of Srinagar, Ganderbal, Baramulla, Kupwara, Bandipora, Budgam, Anantnag - and parts of Jammu region, Doda, Ramban, Kishtwar as coming under Seismic Zone V, which is prone to earthquakes. While the rest of J&K comes under Seismic Zone IV.

“Earthquakes and the time of earthquakes can't be predicted, but as the residents of the active region we should be well prepared in dealing with such disasters if any. At least, the infrastructure we develop and constructions we do, we should strictly follow the engineering construction codes and other guidelines issued by the concerned experts and department of disaster management. Every household can do it. It is very easy and simple, because every household is involved in construction of homes or other requirements in one way or the other," suggested Mir.

Building for earthquake resilience

Senior seismologist Prof. (Dr) Ghulam Jeelani from the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Kashmir, told Moneycontrol that small tremors are a blessing in disguise as the energy or pressure gets released in instalments.

Jeelani said that people should not panic but should construct resilient structures as per the prescribed codes. “We get ready immediately after any calamity hits us. Before that we do not make any preparations. For example, earthquakes do not kill but buildings do, and to avoid any damage, we should follow building codes and earthquake resistant engineering structures.”

For example, Jeelani said, people in the past would use Dajji Dewar — a traditional construction system in Kashmir using the thinner style of wall construction consisting of timber framing with bricks or stone masonry — to avoid cracks in houses during earthquakes.

Both Riyaz and Jeelani also recommended undertaking micro-seismic zoning and risk assessment to minimise the loss of human lives in case of a high magnitude quake.

Director Geology and Mining J&K O.P. Bhagat, when asked if mining and extraction of minerals in the earthquake prone region like J&K can further increase seismic activity, replied that all the mining leases are given after due environmental assessment and clearance. “Without environmental clearance, no activity including mining and extraction of minerals is allowed anywhere in J&K."

Bhagat said that even before issuing composite licences for mining the lithium site in Reasi, where Geological Survey of India last month inferred 5.9 million tonnes of lithium, proper No Objection Certificates from all concerned departments, followed by clearance from pollution control board and environmental clearance from State Environment Impact Assessment Authority shall be taken.

Irfan Amin Malik
Irfan Amin Malik is a freelance journalist based in J&K. He tweets @irfanaminmalik
first published: Mar 19, 2023 08:54 am