Published On: Thu, Oct 29th, 2015

Karachi: Ready for earthquake?

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Is the densely-populated Pakistan’s largest metropolis Karachi ready for an earthquake? Frighteningly, environmentalists and geologists foresee a disaster in the making.

The world’s 7th densest megacity with an estimated 20 million inhabitants, Karachi endured staggering 80 percent growth in population between 2000 and 2010. Construction of multi-storey buildings and tall towers on congested places is all the rage to meet the burgeoning demand of housing units while hundreds of slums are sprawling to provide a low-cost housing option.

“Buildings kill not quake,” tersely remarks geologist Shamim Sheikh at the University of Karachi, while talking to this scribe.

“Slums are more vulnerable to a tremor,” Sheikh added.

The October 26, 2015, earthquake near the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan have so far caused at least 267 deaths and left more than 1,800 injured – mostly living in the ramshackle structure – in the northern parts of Pakistan. Its affects were recorded everywhere in the region except Balochistan and Sindh.

The southwestern province Balochistan had, however, undergone a deadly shake back in 1935 when a 7.7 magnitude temblor trampled at least 30,000 unsuspecting people and tore apart everything in its hilly capital Quetta.

The southeastern Sindh has managed to save its skin from any such disaster; although a tremor in Indian Bhuj city in 2001 was said to demolish a building or two in the province’s city of Hyderabad.

Karachi has been safe as yet. “But, history is not always a mirror to the future,” said Sheikh of Karachi University.

“Agreed that the chances are rarely given the sparse fault lines beneath the city…it’s difficult to say when a displacement [in cracks] may occur,” he added.

Having retired as dean of the faculty of science at Karachi University, he has done a comprehensive geological study for a civil administrator Defence Housing Authority (DHA) Karachi.

He was shy to share his findings, saying, “That was now DHA’s property.”

“A probable epicentre on the most active seismic zone in our neighbourhood will sound the death knell,” he warned, however.

“Soil testing is not so common here before the construction,” he observed, referring to a tall building situated at the Karachi’s financial district that is sinking lower into the ground.

Environmentalist Roland deSouza at a non-governmental organisation Shehri – citizens for better environment – said Bhuj’s quake sent shockwaves to Hyderabad and “That means an impending devastation.”

“Buildings and sewage system in the city are not up to the mark,” DeSouza said. “A majority of constructions are against the building codes.”

The Sindh government has planned to raze buildings dangerous for living across the city, but it crouches when it comes to the removal of shanty towns dotting the port city.

Political compromise turns the incumbent provincial government intoxicatingly indifferent to slum dwellers living in squalor.

DeSouza stressed on construction rules more than seismic monitoring. “You can’t predict a quake…you can rather avert losses,” he said.

He believed that even the monitoring system in Pakistan was not reliable and cited a contradiction in measurement by the Pakistan Metrological Department (PMD) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) of this week’s temblor.

PMD measured the intensity of the earthquake at 8.1 on the Richter scale as opposed to 7.5 quoted by USGS.

Mohammad Riaz, Chief Meteorologist at PMD defended that their seismic metres were not obsolete.

Riaz said geologists are experimenting technologies to predict quakes, but “as such there is no breakthrough.”

Sheikh said Pakistan monitors jerks and not the movement in tectonic plates. “Indian mass is converging with Eurasian plates at the rate of 44 millimetres per year,” he said while pointing at an Asian geological map. This convergence causes pressure upside earth cracks.

Riaz of PMD was not sure about global positioning system’s monitoring of risks. “I think it is happening in Balochistan and some other places,” he said.

Advisably, foreign donors must come forward to donate for buttressing disaster surveillance mechanism and coping strategies instead of just funding disaster recovery in Pakistan.

Disaster management authorities spring into action after a catastrophe and during a recess between the two geological events rebuilding takes place albeit at a snail’s pace. “But, there is no concept of drills as such in schools and hospitals and for the public to get all ready for a tragedy,” regretted Sheikh.

He said modern structural design and retrofitting, such as steel reinforcement can now make a construction flexible enough to sustain an underground pressure due to subduction – convergence of crustal plates.

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Shahid Tariq

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