Aftermath: What if a killer earthquake were to strike Karachi

Faultlines exist beneath surface, undetectable to eye but moving inexorably towards disaster of unimaginable scale.

Zehra Abid July 29, 2012

Every time her children come back into the house, Zareena bathes them. She is convinced that any exposure to the outside world will make them dirty. If her husband and children so much as sit on her bed, she feels compelled to change the sheets. And then there are the bad days when she is awake all night, reciting the Quran and crying uncontrollably.

Zareena was in Karachi on October 8, 2005, but most of her family was in their hometown of Battagram. Of the 4,500 people that died in Battagram alone as a result of the 7.6-magnitude earthquake, eight were her family members.

After the disaster, her husband took her back to her shattered hometown, where there was little to do but help with the funerals and support those left behind. Six years later, she still suffers from post traumatic stress caused by her loss, although after years of treatment her condition has significantly improved.

There are many, like Zareena, who still carry the scars — both physical and psychological — of the worst earthquake to ever strike Pakistan. In all, over 73,000 people perished in that disaster and years later — regardless of what part of the country you’re in — there is panic every time a tremor is felt, no matter how slight. What if it happens again, we wonder? What if it happens where we live and what if, this time, it happens near a major urban centre?

Consider this: in the Kashmir earthquake, the very geographical features that so hampered rescue and relief efforts also kept the overall death toll lower than if a more built-up area had been hit by a quake. That would not be the case if an earthquake were to strike a more urban area.

In January this year, when a 7.2 earthquake hit close to the town of Dalbandin in Balochistan, Karachiites felt strong tremors despite the fact that Dalbandin is 400 kilometres from Karachi and that the epicentre was 80 kilometres underground.

It was then that the idea of this story emerged, when The Express Tribune office was shaken by the tremors and it once again struck us how vulnerable this city is if the unthinkable were to actually happen.

Karachi, with a population of approximately 20 million people, sits near the convergence of the Eurasian, Arabian and Indian tectonic plates, making it an area particularly prone to seismic disturbances.

“The three plates are also moving at different speeds,” warns meteorologist Karam Khan of the Pakistan Meteorological Department. “If one suddenly slips or goes backwards, there can be a major earthquake or a tsunami, since the plates are in the sea.”

It’s happened before: over 50 earthquakes of magnitude 8 and above have been reported in around 75 years along the coastline of Pakistan. Of these, four were accompanied by tsunamis, in 1919, 1943, 1945 and 1956.

“If there is an earthquake in Karachi like that in Japan last year, this city will be flattened. The buildings would collapse, the billboards will fall down, the road structure will be destroyed and ambulances will not be able to reach survivors,” says Roland de Souza, an engineer and a human rights activist who is part of the NGO SHEHRI. Pausing to let his doom-laden words sink in, he continues: “Have I scared you enough?” I reply that he has.

At 60, de Souza has lost heart. He has said these things all too often and knows there is hardly anyone listening. “It’s the same six people who listen to you, otherwise nobody cares,” he says with an air of resignation.

But despite losing faith in Karachi’s people, he still explains, once again most patiently, how precarious the situation is in the city. Building laws are violated in most structures, he says, and there is no such thing as a disaster management plan.

“Disaster management means that when a disaster occurs there is a system that does something about it,” explained de Souza. “But here we have a government that does not do anything even when there is no disaster. We cannot even resolve basic problems such as those of electricity, water and traffic.”

For its part, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) is doing what it can to inform people of any tremors in a timely manner. The old, yellowing walls of the department show clear signs of age and neglect, but inside the department itself is an air of enthusiasm and energy. The Tsunami Early Warning system established here in 2008 works by the second, measuring seismic activity in more than 200 stations across the world.

When tremors are recorded in any part of the country, within two minutes an SMS is sent to relevant organisations, including news channels, and within eight minutes faxes are sent with details about the magnitude, time and place of seismic activity.

The extent of damage caused by an earthquake depends on its magnitude, the distance of the affected area from the epicentre and the depth of the epicentre itself. Since the epicentre of the Dalbandin quake was not in a populated area, there was no damage despite tremors being felt in New Delhi and as far as the Gulf states. Still, panic spread when news media reported it as a 7.2 magnitude quake, nearly at par with the 2005 quake. What the media perhaps did not understand was that the depth of the epicentre is of crucial importance when it comes to expecting how much damage the quake will cause. “If the depth of the earthquake is more than 30 kilometres, there will not be any damage,” says Khan.

Karachi, being situated on the coastline, also faces a threat from tsunamis. While researching this story, I came across a research report by a meteorologist named Humeira Hafeez which claimed that, while Pasni, Ormara and Gwadar were at high risk for tsunamis, Karachi was relatively safe. Unfortunately, I was told that this may not be the case. “The accuracy of such models is questionable,” says Khan.

“Different models can give different results and I myself have run models that give very different results. It is difficult to estimate the damage in advance but sometimes a tsunami of merely a few centimetres can cause widespread damage because of its momentum. The worst case scenario would be if a tsunami occurs because of an earthquake of magnitude 9 or more.”

Pakistan can predict a tsunami around 13 to 14 minutes before it occurs. The early warning system also calculates the height of a wave and the area expected to be affected. For seismic activity on land, the warning time is still only between three to four minutes — the highest margin technology has been able to achieve so far.

With the UNDP’s funding, the meteorological department has set up tsunami warning centres in Gwadar. “Residents have been trained on how to act in times of a disaster. There are emergency drills in which there is a warning signal and people rush to evacuation points,” says Engineer Ataullah from the PMD. “We want to establish such stations in Lasbela, Thatta and Karachi, but it all depends on funding.”

Karachi’s coastline, however, has no evacuation points. “It is the job of the local disaster management and municipal authorities to establish high places for evacuation and educate people on what to do in times of an earthquake,” says Ataullah.

But warning is only part of the issue, and even if the maximum warning time is given in the case of an earthquake it is doubtful that any of Karachi’s residents will be able to find a safe place. If such a place exists at all, that is.

“I don’t know what will happen to areas such as Gulistan-e-Jauhar. It’s very densely populated and I think 99% of the buildings there are not earthquake-resistant. I do not know how they will be evacuated in case of an earthquake,” warns chief meteorologist Muhammad Tauseef Alam.

But apartment buildings and plazas keep coming up, and you would be hard-pressed to find a single builder who even knows what earthquake protection is all about. “Most apartment buildings do not have any precautions for earthquakes. The most recent apartment building we made is on Khayaban-e-Bukhari (Defence Phase VI) and it is not earthquake-resistant,” admits contractor Aqil Hussain.

It’s not as if the laws don’t require such measures. After the 2005 earthquake, further seismic provisions were added to the Pakistan Building Code 1986, making it compatible with the 1997 US Uniform Building Code.

Of course, there is a huge gap between legislation and implementation. “Every law and provision that stands in the way of people making a quick buck is violated,” says de Souza.

Zia Jaffery, a member of the Sindh Building Control Authority’s (SBCA) committee on dangerous buildings, says buildings need to be constructed under strict supervision to ensure that the approved plan is followed.

Around 150 buildings in Kharadar, Mithadar and Lyari have been declared so dangerous that even a tremor measuring 2 on the Richter scale can bring them down, he says. “People living in dilapidated buildings in Karachi’s old city areas must be evacuated immediately and the buildings demolished,” he adds.

But de Souza says it’s not just about the old buildings. “They want to demolish buildings only to evict tenants, who usually live on a pagari (tenancy) system. You cannot demolish buildings without supporting the building adjacent to it because the foundation then becomes weak,” he says, reading out a clause from the Karachi building and town regulation planning 2002. “At least two buildings have collapsed because the buildings next to them were demolished without giving adjacent buildings the necessary support.”

De Souza also disagrees with the SBCA listing only a few hundred buildings as dangerous, saying that the real number is in the thousands.

Then there are the new structures which have been made in violation of the building code with no earthquake-resistant measures incorporated into their design. “Most developers are of the ‘hit-and-run’ type and the SBCA is too lax in ensuring implementation of the law,” he says.

However, Engineer Nasir Ali, who works at the structural engineering firm, Bilal and Mushtaq, says the new high-rise structures are in fact earthquake-resistant, citing the MCB Tower and The Mall (formerly known as Sofitel Towers) as examples. He is careful in the words he chooses, correcting me and saying that there is no such thing as “earthquake-proofing.”

The impact of an earthquake, he explains, is directly proportional to the weight of the buildings, so in high seismic zones we make very light structures with spaces in between.

Still, such measures are being taken in only a handful of buildings, and there is no doubt that in the case of a significant quake, Karachi’s beleaguered rescue services will be pushed beyond breaking point. While Karachi may pride itself in being home to the largest volunteer ambulance service in the world, it will need more help than Edhi sahib is able to provide if the tectonic plates collide.

“We have a huge population and if there is a massive disaster such as an earthquake, we will only be able to cater to 25% of the population,” says Edhi spokesperson Anwer Kazmi. This, of course, is assuming that nothing happens to the charity itself.

Overall, there is no coordination between the various ambulance services and, in case of any major event such as a bomb blast, there is more chaos in the city when all ambulances rush to the same site.

While Kazmi agrees on the need for a centralised system, he says it does not help in the case of a disaster. “There is too much chaos at that time,” he says with an air of experience.

Dr Seemin Jamali is all too familiar with that chaos. The deputy director of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical College (JPMC) has worked at the emergency ward for 21 years — the only woman to have done so.

“No matter how well-equipped you are, how many doctors and nurses you have, it’s never enough for the emergency ward, which has 800 to 1,000 patients coming in every day.” JPMC, one of three public hospitals in the city which provide tertiary medical care, has 100 beds in the emergency ward that can be increased to 150 when necessary. If that’s the case on a ‘normal’ Karachi day, imagine what it would be like in case of a disaster.

Historically, one of the greatest dangers in a post-earthquake scenario is from fire caused by broken gas mains and downed electrical wires. In the case of such an event occurring in Karachi, it seems the citizens will have to tackle major blazes on their own. Karachi’s fire brigade and rescue department are grossly understaffed, with one station catering to an average of 1.3 million people. “We have 22 fire stations in Karachi, with a total team of 777 firefighters,” says Chief Fire Officer Imtiaz Afzal at the Karachi fire brigade and rescue department headquarters.

There are usually three or four fire tenders at every station, but sometimes there could be two or even one.  Afzal says shortage of funds provided by the Sindh government does not allow them to upgrade their system. The last time they bought new fire tenders was in 1997.

“Our staff is well trained, but we need at least 300 more firemen and much more equipment,” says Afzal.

The lack of funds is apparent at the headquarters of the fire brigade, where the only colours on the dilapidated building are the MQM’s red, white and green.

But Azim Siddiqui, managing director of the Sui Southern Gas Pipelines, claims the situation in Karachi may not be as bad as one might think. “In many places in Karachi, we have polyethylene pipelines which are not as susceptible to damage as metal pipes,” he explains.

When asked about a contingency plan, just in case, he says: “You really can’t have one for something like this. There is really not much you can do if gas pipelines burst after an earthquake, except to repair them as quickly as possible. Because of the frequent gas pipeline explosions (by militants), our repairs system has become very good — better than that in other countries,” he claims.

But apart from collapsed buildings and fire hazards, another danger is from the people themselves. In a post-disaster scenario, many (and possibly well-armed) groups will take the opportunity to loot and even ordinarily law-abiding citizens may have to take extreme measures to secure food, water and shelter.

Security analyst Ikram Sehgal has no doubt that there will be “anarchy” in Karachi if an earthquake occurs. “There is no such thing as disaster management here. It’s a joke.”

When asked to explain, he continues: “at the moment there is no local government. With local governments at least there was some authority, but now there is a free-for-all situation. Only the army would be able to control the rioting that would occur. We saw what happened the day Benazir Bhutto died.”

Raja Tariq, the Station House Officer at Shara-e-Noor Jahan, is even more candid. “The Karachi police are unable to control everyday disasters in the form of target killings, extortion, kidnapping for ransom and street crime. How will it control riots in the aftermath of a natural disaster?” Pointing out that Karachi is awash with weapons, he says that most criminals and terrorists are better equipped than his own men. “The police itself are a victim of disaster,” he says.

For its part, the National Disaster Management Authority has left the matter to the local and provincial disaster management authorities. “The only thing we can do is to make the PDMA and district management authority self-reliant,” says Ministry of National Disaster Management Secretary Javaid Malik. “We are working to improve their capacity and give risk-insurance to vulnerable communities,” he adds.

While the disaster management authorities seem clueless, well-known columnist and long-time Karachi resident Ardeshir Cowasjee has a concrete plan. He says the city is in dire need of a disaster commissioner who should supervise all emergency services, including fire engines, ambulances and rescue teams.

“The Disaster Commissioner of a city needs to be a very senior government official (say grade 20 or 21) so that he can get other officials in the city to perform. In cities the size of Karachi or Lahore, he has to be a man dedicated to the job, and not someone handling it as an additional responsibility,” says Cowasjee. But he cautions that choosing the right man for the job is of utmost importance.

“He will have the difficult task of getting emergency service agencies (under-funded, badly manned, and inadequately resourced) and military groups (the best organised and funded institutions in the country) to plan ahead, conduct regular practice drills, prepare contingency strategies and the like. He will have to set up a fool-proof communications system, and involve universities, NGOs, business houses, CSOs and other private groups in creating a disaster master-plan like the one being developed in Turkey, another earthquake-prone country.”

Will this ever happen? Given the track record of our successive governments and the institutional incompetence that plagues Pakistan, the greater likelihood is that we will only be shaken out of our slumber the day after the unthinkable takes place. If then.

Before an Earthquake:

•     Build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.

•   Fasten shelves securely to walls.

•   Place large or heavy objects on lower shelves.

•   Store breakable items such as bottled foods, glass, and china in low, closed cabinets with latches.

•   Fasten heavy items such as pictures and mirrors securely to walls and away from beds, couches and anywhere people sit.

•   Brace overhead light fixtures and top heavy objects.

•   Repair defective electrical wiring and leaky gas connections. These are potential fire risks. Get appropriate professional help. Do not work with gas or electrical lines yourself.

•   Install flexible pipe fittings to avoid gas or water leaks. Flexible fittings are more resistant to breakage.

•   Secure your refrigerator and gas appliances by strapping them to wall studs and bolting to the floor.

•   Repair any deep cracks in ceilings or foundations. Get expert advice if there are signs of structural defects.

•   Be sure the residence is firmly anchored to its foundation.

•   Store weed killers, pesticides and flammable products securely in closed cabinets with latches and on bottom shelves.

•     Locate safe spots in each room under a sturdy table or against an inside wall. Reinforce this information by moving to these places during each drill.

•   Hold earthquake drills with your family members: Drop, cover and hold on.

Protecting yourself from an earthquake:


•   Drop down onto your hands and knees (before the earthquake knocks you down). This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.

•   Cover your head and neck (and your entire body if possible) under a sturdy table or desk. If there is no shelter nearby, only then should you get down near an interior wall (or next to low-lying furniture that won’t fall on you), and cover your head and neck with your arms and hands.

•   Hold on to your shelter (or to your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.


•   Do not run outside or to other rooms during shaking: The area near the exterior walls of a building is the most dangerous place to be. Windows, facades and architectural details are often the first parts of the building to collapse.

•   Do not stand in a doorway

Once the earthquake shaking stops:

•   Check the people around you for injuries; provide first aid. Do not move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger.

•   Check around you for dangerous conditions, such as fires, downed power lines and structure damage.

•   If you have fire extinguishers and are trained to use them, put out small fires immediately.

•   Check your phones to be sure they have not shaken off the hook and are tying up a line.

•   Inspect your home for damage.

•   Make sure everyone in the family knows where the main outlets of electricity and gas are situated in your house so that they can be shut off after the quake.

•   Be prepared for aftershocks. These secondary shockwaves are usually less violent than the main quake but can be strong enough to do additional damage to weakened structures.

•   Open cabinets cautiously. Beware of objects that can fall off shelves.

•   Stay away from damaged areas unless your assistance has been specifically requested by police, fire, or relief organizations.

•   Be aware of possible tsunamis if you live in coastal areas. These are also known as seismic sea waves (mistakenly called “tidal waves”). When local authorities issue a tsunami warning, assume that a series of dangerous waves is on the way. Stay away from the beach.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 29th, 2012.


Dude | 11 years ago | Reply

Very informative.. since one doesnt expect anything frm current govt .. i hope future govt of PTI has already taken notice of this and made this issue part of their agends

BLing BLing | 11 years ago | Reply

Loadshedding, putting food on table, inflation, getting to home safe: the masses have to deal with so many problems everyday, I am not surprised they don`t care about it. There is just no energy or time left after dealing with these problems.

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