The Bomb and the Earthquake in Pakistan

The News, October 23, 2005
Capital Suggestion
The Bomb and earthquake relief
Dr Farrukh Saleem

According to the United States Geological Survey, "A major earthquake occurred at 8:50:40 a.m. on Saturday, October 8, 2005. The magnitude 7.6 event has been located in Pakistan."

The Government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was caught sleeping. Our seismologists completely failed to determine the epicentre of the quake and Pakistani authorities were unaware of the real magnitude of the disaster. Our Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, on live TV, assured that the "quake had not caused any major damage." For the following five hours, up until 2 p.m., no one in Islamabad or in Rawalpindi had realised the real gravity of the calamity.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed wasn't hiding the truth; he simply didn't know the truth. Our seismologists failed not because they are untutored but because they have been set up to fail.

The scientific fact is that "when earthquakes occur near a country's boundaries like the recent one in Kashmir, real-time data from at least three seismographs are essential in locating the earthquake's epicentre (a point on the earth's surface directly above the underground epifocal point where the earthquake originates). The determination of the epicentre in turn can lead to production of ground-shaking intensity maps, which play a crucial role in speeding aid to victims. If such maps had been generated and used during the aftermath of the Kashmir earthquake, thousands of victims could have been saved."

Here is the case: There is a very strong connection between the monitoring of nuclear explosions and the monitoring of earthquakes. Pakistan's nuclear doctrine has kept the country away from any global seismic monitoring network, and without joining a global seismic monitoring network we cannot develop an effective post-earthquake-monitoring network. As a consequence, we Pakistanis continue to be extremely vulnerable to the aftermath of earthquakes; no real-time data, no determination of immediate impact, no distribution of damage reports and no effective post-earthquake relief (for the first 24 hours we were concentrating on the collapsed Margalla Towers while a hundred thousand children were buried under debris).

The Global Seismographic Network (GSN) is the most reliable seismological network on the face of the planet. As of 2003, GSN had deployed 128 permanent seismic recording stations uniformly over the earth's surface (eight new stations will be deployed by the end of 2005). GSN is a "university research consortium dedicated to exploring the Earth's interior through the collection and distribution of seismographic data." The governing Standing Committee is composed of Arizona State University, University of California, Pennsylvania State University and Yale University, among others.

Here is the catch: GSN "not only accurately monitors earthquakes at 128 stations worldwide but also assists in the verification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by being the ears through which seismic signatures of nuclear detonations are detected by the participating nations."

The Pakistan Meteorological Department is not part of any global seismic monitoring network and is thus deaf, dumb and blind. For the initial crucial hours during which thousands of lives could have been saved, we didn't know the epicentre, we didn't know the distribution of damage and we didn't have any colour-coded ground-shaking intensity maps.

India, for reasons not much different from our own, is not part of GSN either. On October 10, The Indian Express quoted Kapil Sibal, Minister for Science, Technology and Ocean Development, as saying, "India surely needs to network with the global earthquake community. If this requires a rethink on old issues, the Science ministry will request for a re-look on this … issue."

Do our bombs already have Kashmiri blood on them? The magnitude 7.6 event was a natural disaster; a hundred thousand casualties were partly man-made.

The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance columnist

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