An earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale hit southwest Pakistan yesterday. The Balochistan province where the quake struck is isolated and has been plagued by sectarian violence as well as clashes between government forces and local militias.
Dawn brings us news of the devastation:
The death toll from a massive earthquake that jolted southwest Pakistan rose to 306 on Wednesday, with officials saying thousands have been left homeless in remote parts of Balochistan province.
The 7.7-magnitude quake struck Tuesday afternoon in the province, toppling thousands of mud-built homes as it spread havoc through Awaran and Kech districts and the southwestern parts of the country.
Pakistan’s military on Wednesday rushed to reach the scene of the earthquake to launch a relief operation in the affected areas. Officials said the toll was expected to rise as rescue teams reach more villages in the remote area.
Provincial home secretary Asad Gilani confirmed 306 people had been killed and more than 400 injured from the huge quake.
In the areas hit worst, virtually all of the mud homes were leveled:
The scale of the affected territory is daunting. Awaran’s population is scattered over an area of more than 21,000 square kilometres. More than 60,000 people live within 50 kilometres of the epicentre, according to the UN disaster agency, mostly in easily collapsible mud homes.
Television footage showed collapsed houses, caved-in roofs and people sitting in the open air outside their homes, the rubble of mud and bricks scattered around them.
Abdul Rasheed Baloch, a senior official in the district, said teams had worked through the night to try to retrieve bodies and survivors from the rubble. “Around 90 per cent of houses in the district have been destroyed. Almost all the mud houses have collapsed,” he said.
The earthquake hit in the late afternoon local time, so we can hope that many people were able to move out of mud brick structures before they collapsed, but it still would not be surprising for the death toll to continue a rapid climb as more information emerges from remote sites.
Just off the port city of Gwadar, the earthquake appears to have created a new island. The island is not the result of uplifting of tectonic plates but is instead a structure referred to as a mud volcano:
Mohammad Danish, a marine biologist from Pakistan’s National Institute of Oceanography, said a team of experts had visited the island and found methane gas rising.
“Our team found bubbles rising from the surface of the island which caught fire when a match was lit and we forbade our team to start any flame. It is methane gas,” Danish said on a local television news channel.
The island is about 60 to 70 feet (18 to 21 metres) high, up to 300 feet wide and up to 120 feet long, he said. It sits about 200 metres away from the coast.
Gary Gibson, a seismologist with Australia’s University of Melbourne, said the new island was likely to be a “mud volcano”, created by methane gas forcing material upwards during the violent shaking of the earthquake.
In this video, we can see the methane bubbles coming to the surface on the new island:
Islands of this sort have been formed by earthquakes in the region before, and they tend to get washed away by wave action:
“It’s happened before in that area but it’s certainly an unusual event, very rare,” Gibson told AFP, adding that it was “very curious” to see such activity some 400 kilometres from the quake’s epicentre.
The so-called island is not a fixed structure but a body of mud that will be broken down by wave activity and dispersed over time, the scientist said.
A massive earthquake has struck near the Iran-Pakistan border in the region known in both countries as Balochistan. With Iran subject to massive US sanctions that are already crippling its economy and affecting health care, responding to this disaster will be a huge challenge. Just over the border in Pakistan, the region has been torn by what some see as government-sanctioned disappearances and killings. The border in the region is quite porous and there have been a number of incidents involving both Iranian and Pakistani border control agents. The best prospects for the economy of the area to improve hinge on the Iran-Pakistan pipeline which crosses the border within about 150 miles of the epicenter and development of the port of Gwadar, which Pakistan recently signed over to China, also just over 150 miles from where the earthquake struck.
PressTV informs us that deaths from the quake have already been reported:
At least 40 people have been killed after a powerful earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale struck Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchestan Province, the Iranian Seismological Center (IRSC) says.
The IRSC reported that the epicenter of the quake was situated 81 kilometers north of the city of Saravan.
Dawn reports that Iranian authorities say it is the worst earthquake to hit Iran in 40 years:
An Iranian government official said he expected hundreds of deaths from the massive 7.8 magnitude earth quake, felt as far away as New Delhi and Gulf cities of Dubai and Bahrain.
“It was the biggest earthquake in Iran in 40 years and we are expecting hundreds of dead,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
(While this post was being written, Dawn updated the article to note that five deaths have already been reported on the Pakistan side of the border.)
The shaking was felt across large distances:
Tremors from the earthquake were felt as far away as New Delhi and the Gulf cities of Dubai and Bahrain.
Note that last year, two earthquakes in northwest Iran killed over 300 people. Those quakes had magnitudes of 6.4 and 6.2 on the Richter scale. The scale is logarithmic, so even the lower 7.5 estimate from Iran (compared to the initial 7.8 from USGS) makes this earthquake at least ten times more powerful than the quakes last summer. The region where today’s quake struck is much less populated, but with a quake of this magnitude, expect the devastation to cut a very wide swath.
Even though he was unsure of its pronunciation, Representative Dana Rohrabacher mounted what was initially a one-man campaign that he claimed was for a free and independent Balochistan. He did eventually enlist top-notch intellectual luminaries Louie Gohmert and Steve King in his effort, but the lingering question I had regarding his efforts on this front boiled down to:
Does Rohrabacher want to help the Baloch, or does he merely want US control of the port of Gwadar and an end to the planned gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan through Balochistan?
We now have the opportunity to answer that question, as Rohrabacher’s attempts to arrange US control of Gwadar and to prevent the gas pipeline have failed. Pakistan officially transferred control of the port of Gwadar to China today from the Port of Singapore Authority. The final agreement relating to construction of the gas pipeline through Pakistan (Iran claims to have completed 900 kilometers of the pipeline within its borders already) was expected to be signed last Friday, but it appears a last-minute disagreement of gas pricing has delayed those signatures for a week. Here is Dawn on the transfer of Gwadar:
China took control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port on Monday as part of its drive to secure energy and maritime routes that also gives it a potential Arabian Sea naval base, sparking Indian concern. “The contract of operation of Gwadar port is formally given to China. Today, the agreement is transferred from the Port of Singapore Authority to China Overseas Ports Holding Company Limited,” President Asif Ali Zardari announced. “The award of this contract opens new opportunities for our people… It gives new impetus to Pakistan-China relations,” added Zardari in a speech broadcast live on television.
As the article notes, China had funded the bulk of the construction of the port, so it should come as no surprise that they would eventually gain control:
China paid about 75 per cent of the initial $250 million used to build the port but in 2007 PSA International won a 40-year operating lease. Then-ruler Pervez Musharraf was reportedly unwilling to upset Washington by giving control of the port to the Chinese.
I have to wonder whether Rohrabacher’s outright hostility shown to Pakistan over the Balochistan freedom movement and the issue of Dr. Shakeel Afridi played into their willingness to go against US wishes in signing Gwadar over to the Chinese. Perhaps Representative Rohrabacher can enlist a new ally in his battles with Pakistan since he is such an adherent to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach. It appears that Iran is finding it necessary to build their own naval base very close to Gwadar so that they can keep an eye on what transpires there:
Iran’s Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari says the country is establishing a new base in the Sea of Oman near Pakistan’s border to boost the Islamic Republic’s defense capabilities. “The naval base, which is under construction, is situated in the Gwatr Gulf on our country’s farthest eastern shores bordering Pakistan,” Sayyari said on Sunday.
“The Iranian navy has so far had no military presence in the area, but now, we will be present in the region to defend the interests and maritime resources of our country and exercise a tighter control over the traffic in the region,” Sayyari noted.
Just as he took up arms to fight alongside Osama bin Laden’s Mujahideen movement against his arch-enemies from the Soviet Union, maybe Rohrabacher will decide to team up with Iran’s navy near Gwadar in an attempt to punish Pakistan for daring to thwart his wishes.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post gave California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher space so that he could attempt to explain to us why he is disrupting diplomatic efforts to repair US-Pakistan relations by continuing his quest for an independent Balochistan. Rohrabacher does manage a reference in the opening paragraph to the atrocities befalling the Baloch at the hands of Pakistani authorities, but his column is more of a laundry list of what is wrong with Pakistan rather than why Balochistan should be independent.
Remarkably, Rohrabacher states “With this resolution, I do not seek to single out Pakistan”, but goes on to list a litany of complaints against Pakistan, most of which have nothing to do with the Baloch. Rohrabacher hits Pakistan for being an accomplice in the 9/11 attacks, for the fate of Shakeel Afridi and for harboring the Taliban. Coming from the man who coined the term “Freedom Fighters” to describe the Mujahedin while on Reagan’s staff and even going so far as to fight alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan against the Soviets, this is a remarkable level of hypocrisy. He also happens to mention that the Chinese have designs on the port of Gwadar. The clincher that Rohrabacher is simply punishing Pakistan comes in his penultimate paragraph:
It is time Washington stopped aiding Pakistan and developed a closer friendship with India and, perhaps, Baluchistan.
Yup, he’s not singling out Pakistan, he just thinks we need to stop supporting them and support their biggest enemy and those fighting from within.
Missing from Rohrabacher’s piece is any mention of what the Baloch are doing in their quest for independence. One would think that having been burned already by teaming with bin Laden out of hatred for the Soviets, Rohrabacher would look into the actions by those he is now supporting against Pakistan. Others appear to be aware that such examination will come soon, and we see a recent piece in Dawn where the independence movement attempts to justify some of its worst violence:
Brahamdagh [Bugti], whom the authorities in Pakistan have variously accused of financing, running and heading terrorist activities in Balochistan, rejected the perception that Baloch sardars were against development in their areas. He said the Baloch were, however, opposed to road-building projects meant for further exploitation of the province’s natural resources.
When asked about the murder of Punjabi settlers in Balochistan, Brahamdagh blamed the army. “When the army kills people, the family members [of those killed) have no choice but to react and take revenge,” he said.
The reason roads are being destroyed is that they are being used exploit natural resources and Punjabi settlers are being murdered because the Baloch have to kill someone in return for the Pakistani army killing their family members. What could possibly go wrong with supporting groups with these views?