LESSONS FROM TURKEY-SYRIA QUAKE | ‘Earthquake, landslide, flood-prone areas in J&K need risk assessment to minimise damage’

Geologists blame haphazard constructions in tectonically active zones in mountainous areas
A powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake rattled J&K on October 8, 2005, causing massive destruction in the region.
A powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake rattled J&K on October 8, 2005, causing massive destruction in the region.File

Srinagar: With Jammu and Kashmir being vulnerable to natural disasters especially earthquake, floods, and soil erosion, experts have called for risk assessment of vulnerable areas to minimise damage.

J&K is a multi-hazard prone region with natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, landslides, avalanches, high velocity winds, and snowstorms occurring in various areas. Most parts of J&K fall under the high seismic Zones IV and V making J&K vulnerable to earthquakes.

A study conducted by Roger Bilham, a seismologist and professor of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, US, had warned that a major quake with magnitude 9 in the Richter scale was likely to cause landslides and subsequent major destruction.

A powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake rattled J&K on October 8, 2005, causing massive destruction in the region.

Exceptionally heavy rainfall led to overflowing in Jhelum, Chenab, and Tawi basins causing floods in J&K.

A man crosses a flooded street in Srinagar during September 2014 floods. [Representational Image]
A man crosses a flooded street in Srinagar during September 2014 floods. [Representational Image] File/ Agency

Jhelum had crossed a record 23-feet at Ram Munshi Bagh gauge here submerging localities on both sides of the river including city's commercial hub Lal Chowk and its adjoining areas.

J&K has been frequently witnessing earthquakes, flash floods and landslides.

Cracks in several houses in the hilly Nai Basti area of Thathri in Doda district of Jammu a few days ago created panic among the residents.

A residential house is photographed as it sinks in J&K's Doda.
A residential house is photographed as it sinks in J&K's Doda.Mir Imran for Greater Kashmir

They linked the situation with Joshimath, a hilly town in north Indian state of Uttarakhand a few months ago where over 1000 houses cracked, crumbled, and caved in, rendering families homeless.

Doda has emerged as one of the most eco-fragile areas in J&K due to its unique geoclimatic conditions.

It is prone to earthquakes and witnessed nine tremblers within 60 hours in August last year.

Several developmental projects are underway in the mountainous Doda district. Experts blame increased haphazard construction activities for frequent landslides and soil erosion in the district. 

Noted earth scientist Prof Shakil Romshoo maintains that the Himalayas are one of the most fragile ecosystems and “need adequate safeguards against the onslaught by humans to protect their fragility”.

“Development of buildings and settlements on unconsolidated materials, moraines, and narrow valleys in the tectonically active zones should be discouraged throughout the hilly regions in the Himalayas including J&K as these are unsuitable for the purpose,” Romshoo told Greater Kashmir.

Elaborating, he said that the villages and buildings developed on such ill-suited sites due to ignorance need immediate and appropriate protection and if possible relocation to safer locations

“In future, such unsuitable sites should be banned for settlements, infrastructure projects and road construction works. The level grounds or land with gentle and moderate slopes in the hilly areas without quaternary deposits are the most suitable sites for construction of buildings. These lands should be used for the rehabilitation of the damaged villages and buildings,” Romshoo said.

“The settlements located over or near the palaeo-landslides, along steep slopes and near watercourses are vulnerable to landslides and subsidence. Thus, it is important to carry out disaster vulnerability and risk assessment of such settlements, villages, towns particularly in the Chenab Valley.”

Chenab Valley housing huge dams on Chenab including Dul Hasti in Kishtwar, Baglihar in Ramban, is prone to natural disasters.

“There are several hydropower projects in the Chenab region. It is therefore important that stringent policy guidelines are formulated and implemented in letter and spirit by the government to minimise damage to the fragile environment. In the country, there are a number of institutions and individuals who have expertise to handle such matters and the J&K government should develop research and development programmes in consultation with the specialised institutions and experts to provide proper technical guidance to handle such disasters,” Romshoo said.

The Srinagar-Jammu National Highway frequently gets closed due to landslides, especially in Ramban district.

Experts said that the landslides are triggered mainly due to construction works and use of heavy machines.

“The road network and connectivity in the hilly and mountainous regions is also important. However, to minimise damage to the fragile ecosystem in the mountainous areas, it is necessary that controlled blasting and slope stabilisation measures must be taken on priority,” Romshoo said.

In Doda district, the mass movement varies in magnitude from soil creep to landslides.

Flash floods, particularly in narrow river gorges cause some of the major landslides in the district.

These flash floods trigger landslides in the region, eventually jeopardising the stability of the hill as a whole.

The vulnerability of the geologically young unstable and fragile rocks of the district has increased many times in the recent past due to various unscientific developmental activities.

Deforestation, unscientific road construction and terracing, and encroachment on steep hill slopes have increased the intensity of the landslides.

The powerful earthquake of 7.8 magnitude rocked Turkey and Syria on February 6, leaving around 11,000 dead while hundreds of buildings were toppled like a pack of cards.

“We need to learn lessons from such earthquakes,” Prof G M Bhat, a prominent geologist and a former Head of the Department of Geology, University of Jammu, told Greater Kashmir.

“Most of the areas in J&K are vulnerable to natural disasters, especially earthquakes. We cannot prevent natural disasters but only minimise damage. J&K is situated in a high seismic zone and susceptible to quakes. We have to make people aware that they cannot construct houses on vulnerable spots, especially in hilly and steep areas,” he said.

Twenty-one structures were declared unsafe and 300 people were evacuated to safer places after their structures developed cracks in the Nai Basti area of Thathri.

On February 4, a team of the Geological Survey of India also visited Nai Basti and their findings might be out soon.

Prof Bhat was part of the team that visited the Nai Basti area of Thathri in Doda district to assess the causes of cracks.

“Preliminary study suggests that cracks were caused by seepage of water beneath the houses. We have recommended sealing cracks at the earliest to prevent more damage. But overall there is a need to have proper planning in construction of houses, especially on mountains and slopes. If natural waterways are blocked on mountains, it can be disastrous,” he said. “Authorities must ensure scientific execution of construction projects in areas vulnerable to natural disasters.”

Khalid Bashir, a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Earthquake Engineering, at IIT Roorkee recommended scientific construction, especially in hills areas of J&K.

“Some parts of J&K are pinned under Seismic Zone 5 while remaining in Seismic Zone 4 with highest seismicity. The extent of damage to buildings depends not only on the magnitude of the earthquake but also on the type of construction practice followed in a particular region or country,” said Khalid whose research paper ‘Skirted Footing For Enhancing Load Carrying Capacity’ has been accepted to be presented at GEO-Congress 2023, at Los Angeles, USA. “We have devised a practical solution to the method of installation, construction of foundation based on the concept of bio-inspired geotechnics by mimicking the tree root system. Trees are standing testament of nature’s engineering, which are surviving hundreds of years against seismic, wind, cyclone, and floods.”

In its Disaster Management Plan, the J&K government has recommended developing landslide inventory and susceptibility maps, assessing the status of risk and vulnerability of the existing built environment, identification of safe zones, and complete control of deforestation.

Authorities have also set up an Emergency Response Centre to start rescue and rehabilitation during natural disasters.

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