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[SRINAGAR] Data gathered using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) suggest that India’s Jammu and Kashmir state could be in for an earthquake of greater intensity than previously expected.

Presenting the results of a new study at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union at San Francisco on 7 December, US geologist Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado said Kashmir could be hit by a quake with a magnitude of up to 9 on the Richter scale.

"The largest we estimated before was 8 beneath the Pir Pinjal (range)," Bilham told SciDev.Net

Bilham advised planning for the "worst case," though he could not predict when an earthquake might strike. "We are not forecasting an earthquake. We are merely indicating how big it could be."

A major earthquake, Bilham said, could trigger landslides big enough to block the Jhelum river and flood the entire Kashmir valley. The Himalayan state has a population of 12.5 million according to the 2011 census figures. 

Mohammad Ismail  Bhat,  former head of geology and geophysics at the University of Kashmir and a participant of the study, said earlier assessments were made on the basis of historical data and GPS readings from adjacent areas, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet.

"But since 2007 we collected data across Kashmir through eight permanent stations and ten campaign mode stations." He said that substantial stress accumulation was found in the Zanskar region of Ladakh, north of Srinagar, with an annual  southward movement of 16 millimetres. 

Sushil Kumar, senior scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, told SciDev.Net that major earthquakes occurred in the Himalayan region in 1897, 1905, 1934 and 1950. "Since 1950 no major earthquake reaching a magnitude of 8 has hit the Himalayan region. The energy may be accumulating."  

"But we can say that earthquakes in western Himalayas are sourced at a shallow level — and therefore more intense — while those in the eastern Himalayas are sourced at the lower crust and have less intensity," he said.

Kumar said studies of the September earthquake in Sikkim in the eastern Himalayas and the 2005 earthquake in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir corroborated this view.    

Ghulam Mohammad Dar, faculty head at Kashmir’s Disaster Management Centre, said that despite the devastating quake in Muzaffarabad "disaster preparedness in Kashmir is not satisfactory and a lot needed to be done." 

Dar said that in a number of villages and towns across Kashmir people were building new houses without adopting earthquake-resistant techniques. “I would suggest a building code to which people strictly adhere.”

"There should be preparedness at all levels. Disaster management plans should be made at ward and district levels and training imparted to police, civil defence and health officials," he added.