The ticking time bomb beneath Quetta

Updated Sep 29, 2013 04:46pm
Survivors of the Awaran earthquake walk on the rubble of a mud house after. – Photo by Reuters
Survivors of the Awaran earthquake walk on the rubble of a mud house after. – Photo by Reuters

The Awaran district in Balochistan is the worst affected area of the September 24, 2013 earthquake. Killing at least 359 people, the massive quake razed homes and destroyed the district's infrastructure; tremors also affected dozens of towns in six other districts of the province.

Days after the earthquake, owing to severe damages to communication means and militancy, the survivors are still awaiting relief and rehabilitation.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the quake measured 7.7 on the Richter scale, with the epicenter laying 96 kilometres north of Awaran at a depth of 20 kilometres – and was the result of the very active Chaman fault.

The jolts were felt across Pakistan, prompting people in many cities, like Karachi, Hyderabad, Quetta and Kashmir to evacuate homes and offices.

Both, the April 2013 earthquake in Mashkhel and the September 2013 earthquake in Awaran have raised concerns about the threat of a massive impending earthquake, specifically in the Quetta region.

The calm before the storm

Din Muhammad Kakar, Assistant Professor in Geology at the University of Balochistan warns that elevated stress in the faults near Quetta is a strong indicator of an imminent earthquake.

Like the shell of a cracked egg, the upper surface of the earth is splintered into pieces called tectonic plates. Our planet consists of nine major and 12 smaller plates that are in constant movement.

Faults are essentially the cracks on the surface or at the plate boundaries; and their movements define the occurrences of earthquakes.

The three primary plates that are active in Pakistan are called the Eurasian, Arabian and Indian plates; all three plates conjunct near Lasbella. The subduction of the Arabian plate beneath the Eurasian plate is called the Makran Subduction Zone (MSZ).

Usually, earthquakes occur where these geological plates meet. As the plates push against each other, pressure is gradually built over time and then instinctively released, translating into an earthquake. The longer the interval between two quakes in the same area, the larger the amount of built-up pressure.

Pakistan is also home to the longest and most active fault lines in South Asia, the Chaman Fault System (CFS). At least 900 kilometres long, this fault is responsible for the 1935 Quetta Earthquake, which ranks as one of the deadliest earthquakes to have ever hit South Asia. A stem of the CFS, called the Ornach Fault is what triggered the recent Awaran earthquake.

The Chaman Fault is currently moving at the rate of 8-10 millimeters a year, equivalent to the width of the nail of a pinky finger.

“No activity has been witnessed in the north of the Chaman area in the last 115 years, which is a sign of enormous stress accumulation,” Kakar said.

He states that Quetta has been calm for more than 75 years; however, there is tremendous pressure building beneath its surface.

Hard facts, Cruel realities

To asses the threats to Quetta, with the help of some local universalities and institutes abroad, Kakar’s university placed two dozens sensors at various active points across Balochistan.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) based sensors confirmed that the faults were undoubtedly gathering stress in Quetta, with velocities moving southward at the rate of 8-10 millimeters per year.

Additionally, Kakar has been urging the authorities for quite some time now, to use strict building codes and preparedness and response plans for the city.

“With Quetta being highly susceptible to earthquakes, it is appalling that we still do not have any emergency plans for the city. Almost 50 per cent of Quetta perished in the 1935 earthquake. There is no telling how much more damage the next earthquake may bring,” he added.

Islands of opportunity

A few hours after the earthquake struck Awaran, a small island arose near the waters of Gwadar. Within a span of two days, two more islands popped up along the coast of Ormara and Pasni.

Experts claim that these structures are mud volcanoes that suggest continuous methane emission, thus projecting great hydrocarbon potential.

Visitors keenly exploring the island that rose from the sea following the Awaran earthquake. –Photo by Reuters
Visitors keenly exploring the island that rose from the sea following the Awaran earthquake. –Photo by Reuters

Locals in the area expressed a feeling of déjà vu upon the emergence of these islands, having already witnessed the rise of a soft muddy island in November 16, 2010 off shore in Hingol.

The mud volcano that emerged offshore in Hingol, Balochistan. -Photo by the Geological Survey of Pakistan.
The mud volcano that emerged offshore in Hingol, Balochistan. -Photo by the Geological Survey of Pakistan.

Anwar Hussain, Deputy Director of Geological Survey of Pakistan, Karachi, visited the Hingol mud volcano for research purposes.

“The Hingol mud volcano was much larger than these three islands that have recently appeared. It has by now submerged back into the water, as the appearance and disappearance of these mud volcanoes is a fairly common phenomenon in the area,” Hussain explained.

“I discovered methane gas seeping from various spots in the Hingol volcano. Sulphur and some traces of copper were also detected,” he added.

Similar mud volcanoes have been found near Gwadar. One of the highest and biggest in the world, Chandragup (Moon Volcano) is also located in close proximity.

Anwar Hussain said that the offshore area of the Makran coast shows tremendous potential of methane gas. He recommended a comprehensive geophysical analysis to further explore this potential.

Similarly, experts from the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) have also indicated awareness of frozen methane in the area.

The ticking bomb

Pakistan has suffered two devastating earthquakes in recent history, with the Quetta earthquake in May 1935 killing at least 30,000 people and the Pakistan-administered Kashmir earthquake in October 2005 killing 75,000 people.

While it was the Chaman Fault that triggered the Quetta earthquake, the Kashmir earthquake was a result of the collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates.

However, the gravest geological bomb that now ticks is the Makran Subduction Zone (MSZ). Located in the Arabian Sea, this is the precise point where all three tectonic plates are active with each other.

On 28 November 1945, Pasni and some parts of Ormara were overwhelmed by huge waves, measuring up to 12-15 meters in height, when the 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit the MSZ.

More than 4000 people died in the Makran earthquake, the giant waves brought to shore hundreds of thousands of dead fish and destroyed many villages in its wake.

Experts warn that the recurring frequency of earthquakes and tsunamis in the MSZ is 100-150 years.

An earthquake from the MSZ area was also reported in 326 BC. And seismic activity in the region was registered in the years 1008 and 1897.

A study based on the tsunami hazard in the MSZ by a team of Iranian experts concludes that the zone has a high probability of witnessing a huge tsunami within the next 50 years.

Additionally, the study suggests that the Makran and Gwadar coasts are also vulnerable to a tsunami attack, owing to the two islands that emerged there after the 1945 quake.

The Deputy Director of GSP Islamabad, Asif Nazeer Rana said that historically, Makran has been hit by tsunami in the past.

“The entire Makran Coast is vulnerable to a tsunami triggered by a 7.5 or above magnitude earthquake, this will result in serious repercussions for Karachi as well,’ he added.

Gemma L. Smith and her colleagues from the University of Southampton recently published a paper on the Makran Zone.

The team has developed a two-dimensional thermal model of the subduction zone, which suggests that earthquakes ranging from 8.7 to 9.2 magnitudes are probable, approximately within 350 kilometers of the area, with a reoccurrence frequency of 100-200 years.

Pakistani experts have also warned that the two earthquakes in 2013 that struck Balochistan could further trigger pressure towards the already pulsating Makran Zone.

With the ever-increasing evidence of such approaching harsh realities, it is time for Pakistan to take steps to ensure immediate emergency preparedness and response plans to save thousands of precious lives.


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Comments (33) Closed


Baluch
Sep 28, 2013 02:31pm

Important buildings in Quetta should have passive control seismic mitigation devices installed, and no new important buildings should be built without such devices. Residential buildings should be suitably retrofitted to upgrade them to resist expected lateral seismic forces. This can be a project of gargantuan proportions that could see Pakistani earthquake and structural engineering researchers provide creative solutions, work with international experts, and provide stimulus to the construction sector. Such an opportunity to move forward and leave all the conflict and resulting tragedies behind.

Adnan
Sep 28, 2013 03:24pm

How I wished that Nawaz Sharif would go to Awaran and spend a few days there to ensure that lives be saved and necessary help reaches the survviors ... where is national emergency? I always that this was part of our culture to atleast go and condole with the families. This would have helped in healing the wounds and set aside the feeling of depreviation from the State of Pakistan

kashif
Sep 28, 2013 04:46pm

this country and nation is running on AUTO system, nobody is running them...whatever happens anywhere; it doesn't matters to anyone. Anybody can do anything anywhere be it a Pakistani or any other country...

Nadeem Mirbahar
Sep 28, 2013 04:56pm

The pictures shown of 2010 mud volcano is pic of Chundergup the active inland mud volcano near Sapat Bundar.

Following Building code is inevitable for the vulnerable towns like Karachi and Quetta to minimize the damage mostly acceleratedby sub standard structures. Research, emergency and preparedness plans, safety and exit plans are required to minimize the damage arising from natural calamities. Safe locations identifications are very important, beside this contineous monitoring and Reaserch should go on as to minimize damages and to save human lives. May God Protect everyone

Nadeem Mirbahar
Sep 28, 2013 05:02pm

The pictures shown of 2010 mud volcano is pic of Chundergup the active inland mud volcano near Sapat Bundar.

Following Building code is inevitable for the vulnerable towns like Karachi and Quetta to minimize the damage mostly acceleratedby sub standard structures. Research, emergency and preparedness plans, safety and exit plans are required to minimize the damage arising from natural calamities. Safe locations identifications are very important, beside this contineous monitoring and Reaserch should go on as to minimize damages and to save human lives. May God Protect everyone

Awan
Sep 28, 2013 05:16pm

@Adnan : For your kind Information PMLN Officials are already on the ground. CM Shahbaz today is in Balochistan in Awaran region and also supervising relief operations and sending of goods from Punjab and Nawaz Sharif will visit the affected people as soon as he will reach Pakistan.

RK
Sep 28, 2013 05:58pm

May all be safe and healthy. Though, having been warned, it would be foolishness to not take effective measures. Plans must be made to save lives and property.

ivehadit
Sep 28, 2013 06:46pm

Clearly positive ideas like Baluch has offered are the business of the day. Pakistan has a lot of creative people and technologists. By investing in locally important technologies, Pakistan can make itself a hub for specialized services. Mr. Sharif needs to think along these lines also. A small investment can go a long way.

John
Sep 28, 2013 07:30pm

With all these issues, we expect to build trade routes through Gwadar? What's missing?

manzur
Sep 28, 2013 07:52pm

Dear @Awan:during 2010 flood Zardari and PPP govt crticized on Zardari visit to UK. What we people say about PMLN and Nawaz Sharif on his visit to USA at catastrophy of Balochistan??? So-called Urdu National media is also silent on it...STOP DOUBLE STANDARDS..

ABdul
Sep 28, 2013 09:42pm

All these science is mentioned in glorious Qur'An. For the solutions and the release of the built up stress which causes the earthquakes to occur, all we muslims, need to do is seek the guidance from Allah(SWT)'s book and pray for all the stresses move to Kuffar's land.

Abdul
Sep 28, 2013 09:44pm

@Baluch: All the sciences is mentioned is our Glorious Qur'An

zia khan
Sep 29, 2013 01:48am

We should make a shift from concrete and mud houses to wooden dwellings. Light and strong man made materials should also be used. Balochistan has a time bomb ticking but has enormous wealth underneath as well which if harnessed can change the face of Pakistan. The government should make a policy to direct 50% of all gains made from natural resources of Balochistan towards the betterment and development of the people of province. It should be made mandatory under the constitution. They need safe housing, education and basic necessities of life. There is no point in resurrecting destroyed mud houses but new clusters of townships should be developed in villages and towns destroyed by the earthquake. Nature has provided us an opportunity to take a start to end militancy in the right manner.

Abbas
Sep 29, 2013 05:27am

@Baluch: Great idea, but dont forget that you are talking about Pakistan and worst Balochistan where daily drinking water is hard to come by let alon such a high tach building code.

malik
Sep 29, 2013 08:41am

We will just pray and it will go away.

Asif Nazeer Rana
Sep 29, 2013 09:33am

I had telephonically mentioned tsunami hazard on Sindh Makran coast due to proximity with Makran subduction zone and blind faults running close to Karachi but we have no historically documented data about tsunami hitting Karachi except 1945 Earthquake. Tsunami hazard exists in Karachi as it is lying withing striking distance close to an active subduction zone but there is no geologic data about tsunami hitting the city four times.The abondoning of Debal, Bhambore and Mansura is also debateable as to due to an earthquake or change of river Indus course.

imran
Sep 29, 2013 12:45pm

I think these reserves have been there for long. Until now neither at least have been utilized. Country without source but unfortunately full of resource. Not only PM or PML-N should take interest but also we as a Nation come up with reforms needed in these times of suufering.

sherie
Sep 29, 2013 01:12pm

i am always surprised by the load of doctors we make every year, when the majority of our health issues (like the recent polio problem in Pindi) are only fixable with more upstream approaches like better sanitation and housing. Probably most relevant sciences to us are ignored by the makers of our education system. those that relate to our strengths: agriculture, minerals, human resource. imagine if we had our indigenous geo physics research at a decent level today. for one we wont need foreigners' help who take away more than they give back. even now, we could start by offering balochistan's science students training in physics fields to generate local energy development or geo research fields. how much money can it take at most? when we spend billions on making battle tanks.

Sarmad J
Sep 29, 2013 02:11pm

Interesting read. A good piece of research journalism; thorough and factual. Thank you to the writer.

mba
Sep 29, 2013 04:10pm

Wonderful article, terrible perspectives. We can only repeat: God helps those, woho helps themselves. We are not even able to utilize the help given to us. It is a big comfort that we atleast have experts in this field. Please keep on shouting in graveyard. May be that all of us are not dead and are willing to save their childern.

fadoo
Sep 29, 2013 09:05pm

@ABdul:

LOL....yeah we will pray and Allah will move all the tectonic plates to a different continent.......perhaps pray for intelligence?

Taha Lateef
Sep 29, 2013 10:28pm

@Asif Nazeer Rana: In the past Karachi had a natural cover against a full fledged tsunami in form of the mangroove trees growing just past the coast. With the slow and gradual removal of these we are now in a perpetual threat than before.

Andrew
Sep 30, 2013 12:40am

@ Abdul, I cannot believe that Pakistan has so na

Ali
Sep 30, 2013 09:20am

Wonderful article explaining the phenomena of occurrenace of earthquake

Akram
Sep 30, 2013 01:24pm

In one of the other articles in this island emerging, locals say they often see some kind of gas also bubbling up from the surface. If this is methane, then we should be getting an exploration company to come and drill the area for gas. There is likely a build up in the area, and its extraction may help reduce the pressures underneath.

Insane Engineer
Sep 30, 2013 03:07pm

Well, well well. What do we have here ? A problem, which needs a solution. Common sense tells me that when the water boils in a cooker - due to steam build up, the lid rises and the steam is released. In case of a pressure cooker, just enough steam is let off, through the valve in the lid. The lid maintains its position and the excess steam passes out through the lid.
Can't we just drill a hole deep through the tectonic plates to release the stress ? Or do we have to call an APC ?

Abrar Husain Mirza
Sep 30, 2013 04:42pm

We must learn from recent techniques being employed in Japan and Iran while constructing earthquake proof high rising buildings in order to protect precious human life in these vulnerable and earthquake prone areas.

Abrar Husain Mirza
Sep 30, 2013 04:39pm

Very informative for general information.

Arshad
Sep 30, 2013 07:19pm

@manzur: Zardari trip was a useless trip most probably. Nawaz had to deliver a speech to UN representing the country. Baluchistan was not left alone, government was active in providing relief there. Not only that, Punjab govt. was also active with its PM with supplies and help.

Schazad
Sep 30, 2013 11:54pm

@Insane Engineer: I hope u r not an engineer.

Janikhel
Oct 01, 2013 01:55am

Please pray that some sane petrologist will convince our ignorant and incompetent government to explore for Oil & Gas, so we can be net exporter of Oil & Gas, rather that live off the grants and donations, have respect in this world village.

Sanjay
Oct 01, 2013 04:25am

@sherie: Very good insight Sherie. If we put the focus on sanitation, health and education.... And let it be driven locally, we can transform both the countries. Instead we focus on creating professionals who solve the problems of the Western world

RK
Oct 01, 2013 06:52am

@ABdul: You have the book, you have still not being able to follow it? So who is kafir....one who does not follow the book or one who knows about it and stays ignorant?