Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pakistan refuses a visa to earthquake scientist

One of the world’s leading experts on Himalayan earthquakes has been refused a visa for entry into Pakistan. Dr Roger Bilham, of the University of Colorado in the US, had been working in the Andaman islands when the powerful magnitude 7.6 quake struck near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

When he heard the news, Dr Bilham set out on the 1,500 mile journey to Pakistan in the hope of gathering valuable geophysical data in the aftermath of the quake. However visa officials in New Delhi told him that scientists would not be allowed in the country because this was not a time for “intellectual activities”.

This is despite the fact that Pakistani Interior Ministry announced earlier this week that the country would be visa-free for at least a week in order to facilitate foreign entry for “all flying into Pakistan…. to join hands with us in our moment of distress”.

For years, Dr Bilham and colleagues at the University of Colorado in the United States have warned that the Himalayan region is long overdue a large quake. Unfortunately it appears that the Kashmir quake released only a tenth of the energy that is stored—so more earthquakes are expected in the region. Dr Bilham’s work in the journal Science in 2001, suggested that at least two magnitude 8 quakes threaten the Himalayas and its rapidly growing population.

Dr Bilham is currently collaborating with scientists in Pakistan, at the University of Peshawar’s Centre for Geological Excellence. He had been hoping to join them in order to find out what the recent quake might mean for future quakes, both here and in the Himalayas more broadly.

Speaking from New Delhi, Dr Bilham said that in the coming days cracks in the ground would be lost in the rains, and the location and amount of afterslip would tell him a great deal about the properties of the earthquake rupture zone.

In addition, he was worried that over the next few weeks some of these natural features might be bulldozed out of existence. While some of the most important parts of the surface displacement can be measured after a delay of a few weeks—large afterslips may lead to a misinterpretation of these effects.

Reacting to the decision, Dr Bilham said, “Though understandable in the present crisis, this will impair our potential knowledge of future earthquakes in the Himalaya. Specifically it will eliminate possibilities for determining immediate afterslip, and may result in the loss of subtle surface features that occurred during this rare Himalayan earthquake.” In other words, time is of the essence.

Although Dr Bilham was told that other scientists would not be allowed in, structural engineers from around the world also want to visit the region as soon as possible to find out more about how buildings in Kashmir failed in the quake. This evidence will need to be gathered before construction teams move in.

Currently a team of engineers from the UK Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, is pulling together a group that hopes to visit Kashmir to find out how buildings performed and collect geological and seismographic data. The EEFIT team usually tries to visit earthquakes within 10 days of an earthquake.

While there is no suggestion that this is anything more than a random decision made by overwhelmed local officials, Dr Bilham has had a long and troubled history of access to this region that has hampered his work on Himalayan seismology.

This is particularly troubling given that the Himalayas contains a network of underground faults that are unmapped and poorly monitored by seismic instruments. There is also a rapidly expanding population in this earthquake-prone region.

Five years before the earthquake in Bhuj, in India’s Gujarat state, he was refused permission to travel to the border region by the Indian authorities. “I couldn’t get there,” he says. Two years before the Andaman Island quake, when he was working on another scientific article, he was refused permission to travel there.

“Kashmir is yet another region where you can’t do any research, India and Pakistan are very reluctant to let anyone close to that part of the world,” he added. Nepal too, has proven problematic until recently. Only Bhutan has proven helpful. The King, says Dr Bilham, has taken a personal interest in allowing his research.

Unfortunately, while geophysics may know no boundaries, politicians do and this has presented difficulties for outside scientists wanting to better understand Himalayan seismology. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan comprise almost precisely what geologists call a tectonic plate. The Indian plate is moving northwards at about 5cm a year, a force that also generates the Himalayas. The movement of the Indian plate also caused the
Sumatra-Andaman earthquake earlier this year.

If Dr Bilham cannot get a visa in the next day he will return to the Andaman Islands where he is helping to build the first ever “tilt meter” in India.

“It’s a 300m long water pipe that will tell us whether the Andamans are continuing to tilt and flood the eastern coast,” he said. This will help in deciding how best to reconstruct the harbour of Port Blair.

Similarly, Pakistan is likely to need help in finding the safest places to rebuild in Kashmir. For that, the world’s leading geophysicist might come in handy.

Update-17th October
Roger Bilham left Delhi over the weekend for Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. It is possible he will attempt to return to Pakistan in a few weeks.

Further links:
1. Preparing for the unknowable, Oct 13th 2005, The Economist,
Why the Kashmir earthquake happened and what might be done
2. Seismologist keen to get into Pakistan faces delays, Nature.
3. US Geological Survey--Earthquake information about Pakistan.
4. Amateur Seismic Centre--Pakistan Earthquake and guide to great earthquakes in Asia. And further information about seismicity of Pakistan.
5. Dr Bilham's website with links to further information on the Kashmir quake