QUETTA: The death toll from a powerful earthquake in southwest Pakistan rose to 328 yesterday after hundreds of mud houses collapsed on residents throughout the remote and thinly populated area, local officials said.
Pakistan’s army airlifted hundreds of soldiers to help with the aftermath of the worst earthquake in the South Asian country since 2005, when about 75,000 people were killed in the north.
Tuesday’s 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck the Quetta region of Baluchistan, an earthquake-prone province of deserts and mountains, and was felt across South Asia. It destroyed houses and cut communications with the worst- hit district of Awaran and caused a small island to emerge from the Arabian Sea off Pakistan.
“A total of 285 bodies have so far been recovered in Awaran,” said Abdul Rasheed Gogazai, Deputy Commissioner of the district, the worst affected area, with a population of about 200,000.
“And 42 bodies were found in the neighbouring Kech district. We have started to bury the dead.”
Rescue teams found it hard to reach the remote location quickly, and officials said the death toll was likely to rise as emergency workers fanned further into the mountains to assess the damage.
Survivors described scenes of grief and chaos in villages, saying many were digging rows of graves and picking through the debris.
“As far as the human eye can see, all the houses here have been flattened,” one survivor said from Awaran, adding that rescue teams were distributing supplies.
Experts, who found methane gas rising from the small island of mud and rock created by the earthquake, said it was unlikely to last long.
The island of dark grey mass of rock and mud emerged off the port of Gwadar, some 400km from the epicentre. Mohammad Danish, marine biologist from Pakistan’s National Institute of Oceanography, said: “Our team visited the island and found bubbles rising from the surface which caught fire when a match was lit and we forbade our team to start any flame. It is methane gas.”
The island is about 60 to 70 feet high, up to 300 feet wide and up to 120 feet long and sits about 650 feet from the coast.
Gary Gibson, a seismologist with Australia’s University of Melbourne, said the island was likely to be a “mud volcano”, created by methane gas forcing material upwards during the earthquake. “It’s happened before in that area but it’s an unusual event, very rare,” he said, adding it was a “very curious” activity some 400km from the epicentre.
A similar event happened in the same area in 1945 when an 8.1-magnitude earthquake at Makran triggered the formation of mud volcanoes off Gwadar.
Professor Shamim Ahmed Shaikh, Chairman of the Department of Geology at Karachi University, said it happens along the Makran coast because of the complex relationship between tectonic plates in the area. Pakistan sits close to the junction of three plates — the Indian, Arabian and Eurasian. “About a year back an island of almost similar size had surfaced at a similar distance from the coast in the Makran region.”
Gibson said the island was different from the permanent uplift seen during “subduction zone” earthquakes, where plate collisions force the Earth’s crust upwards. In the 9.5-magnitude earthquake in Chile in 1960, fishing villages were thrust “several metres” upwards and wharves located hundreds of metres inland.
Such uplifts are common in the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”, a hotbed of seismic and volcanic activity at the junction of tectonic plates.
During the 9.2-magnitude earthquake off Sumatra which triggered a devastating tsunami in 2004, several islands were pushed upwards while others subsided into the Indian Ocean. The Aceh coast dropped permanently by one metre while Simeulue Island was lifted by 1.5 metres, exposing the surrounding reef, which became the island’s new fringe.
Meanwhile, a 4.7 magnitude earthquake jolted parts of Shangla in northern Pakistan yesterday, Geo News reported. Its epicentre was in Afghanistan’s Hindukush region at a depth of 163km. There were no reports of loss of life and property. Agencies