Why South Asia’s earthquakes are always India’s “fault”

muzaffarabad earthquake damage 2005
muzaffarabad earthquake damage 2005

Damages to Muzaffarabad, Pakistan after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, was at the epicenter of the magnitude 7.6 quake (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Earlier today, I read an article from The Conversation on why it is so difficult to develop early warning systems for earthquakes, like the one that hammered Nepal over the weekend. The piece included an interesting geological factoid:

Across the Himalayas there is around 20mm of convergence (shortening) every year, roughly half of the overall convergence between the Indian and Eurasian plates. The remainder is accommodated further north, in ranges such as the Tian Shan and the Tibetan Plateau. In other words, every year a person in Siberia becomes roughly 40 mm closer to a person in central India, as the Earth’s crust deforms across the broad region between them.

This reminded me of a story that I heard from Andrew MacLeod, a former United Nations official, back in 2013. MacLeod, who worked on humanitarian issues for a number of years, played an integral role in the highly regarded international response to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which killed more than 73,000 Pakistanis. Here’s how he described this episode in his memoir, A Life Half Lived:

During a particularly difficult time in early negotiations with the Pakistanis, I joked that the earthquake was all ‘India’s fault’. This gross oversimplification intended as a joke brought the desired laugh at a very tense time. Geologically speaking, the joke is true. The Indian subcontinent, by continuing to push north-eastward and under the Asian continental plate at 5 cm per year, is the cause of the region’s considerable tectonic activity. This results in many earthquakes and an on-going pushing up of the mountain ranges, making the entire terrain unstable. Regular massive landslides and geological movements give the impression that this part of the world is still being born. The magnificent geography, unstable history and the political turmoil meant that when the earthquake hit, the word ‘devastating’ could only be used as an understatement.

3 things about this anecdote:

  1. This is a particularly brilliant double entendre. Using the word “fault,” which signifies both culpability and the underlying plate tectonics, is pretty damn clever.
  2. The historical roots of earthquake vulnerability often stretch back generations. Anthropologist Anthony Oliver-Smith famously described the May 1970 earthquake that hit Yungay, Peru as a “500 year quake.” By this, he meant that Peru’s vulnerability to the disaster was borne from the destruction of Incan infrastructure and land use policies enacted by the Spanish conquistadors. I guess if you look at vulnerability from the perspective of geological history, the Nepal earthquake could be seen as 50 million year quake.
  3. This episode shows how, even during times of great tragedy and hardship – such as the deadliest earthquake in the history of South Asia – humor can be the most effective tool at our disposal. Needless to say, the Pakistani officials who heard the joke loved it, which helped to ease a potentially difficult relationship between a military regime and the international humanitarian community. But you need to be careful to make the right joke at the right time. On this front, MacLeod has me beaten by a mile.