Ground beneath our feet
Thousands are dead or have disappeared without any trace in the Uttarakhand tragedy. Fierce rainstorms followed by flash floods and landslides were the immediate causes of the huge loss of life and massive damage to property. There has been heated debates about how to avert such disasters in future.
However, there has been no reference to a much greater catastrophe that is waiting to happen anywhere along the Himalayan belt. Seismologists the world over have been unanimous in predicting an imminent mega earthquake in this belt that would lead to the loss of lakhs of lives in the hills and the adjoining Gangetic plains.
Their predictions are based on surveys which show that the massive Indian land mass is inexorably thrusting itself under the Eurasian plate. The area of impact is the Himalayan region.
Over the past decade, seismologists have issued specific warnings of a major quake exceeding a magnitude of 8.2 on the Richter scale occurring anywhere in the zone extending from Bihar-Nepal through Uttarakhand to Kangra in Himachal Pradesh and extending into Kashmir.
A paper published in the 2013 annual edition of the International Journal of Geophysics by researchers of the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, and the National University of Mexico 'indicates that Uttarakhand Himalaya and the surrounding region are highly vulnerable to seismic hazard.
The Tehri, Chamoli, Almora, Srinagar, Devprayag, Bageshwar and Pauri regions experience peak ground acceleration'. A research study completed in 2011 at the Centre for Earth Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, suggests that a powerful earthquake affecting the Himalayan region and North India could occur sooner than expected.
Worryingly, scientists cannot predict the precise time or pinpoint the exact location of a quake though they have provided very reliable indicators denoting the area and period within which a quake will happen.
Quakes happen without the slightest sign of the impending disaster. The major quake on January 12, 2010 in and around Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti, is estimated to have wiped out 2,20,000 lives within seconds.
The May 12, 2008 quake in Sichuan province of China killed 69,000. The October 8, 2005 quake in Pakistan administered Kashmir killed over 75,000 people.
Quakes cannot be prevented but sensible long-term precautions can be taken to reduce loss of life and damage to property. For a start, all new public buildings should be built of reinforced/flexible materials designed to resist quakes.
Private houses and buildings should be constructed to withstand quakes. Uttarakhand, which has suffered at least partly due to the utter disregard for building codes, could be a pioneer in implementing strict regulations while constructing new structures.
Even in the National Capital Region of Delhi, which is listed as a quake-prone zone, the proliferation of high-rises is very dangerous, especially when construction regulations are routinely ignored with impunity. There is no need for new regulations or legislation.
Implementation of existing safety codes by self-aware citizenry is the key.
Jawid Laiq headed a human rights research team at Amnesty International, London
The views expressed by the author are personal