October 24, 2005

Earthquake Shows Man’s Ecological Assault

JABLA, India -- The earthquake didn't destroy Mohammad Shafi Mir's house and bury his mother, but what followed seconds later did - a torrent of bounding boulders that thundered down the mountainside at killer speed.

As he watched in shock from a nearby field, the quake-triggered landslide, resounding like "tank fire on a battlefield," mowed down trees as thick as 5 feet, bombarded houses and enveloped the village with a dust storm that turned day into dusk.

By the time its deadly run ended in the Jabla Nala River far below, nearly half the village's 296 buildings, including the mosque, had been shattered. Only the skeleton of Mohammad's two-story home was left standing, the inside gutted by rocks, boulders and other detritus.

Mohammad's injured mother was dug out from under the rubble and the only other person inside, his leprosy-afflicted father, miraculously survived.

"I had just invested in a new kitchen but I didn't even have a chance to enjoy a single cup of tea in it," said the 35-year-old breadwinner for 14 family members.

Jabla was not alone. Landslides tumbled across the zone of the Oct. 8 earthquake, dramatizing not only the power one of nature's great killers but how humans have brought tragedy upon themselves through massive deforestation and other ecological assaults on the mighty Himalayas.

In Pakistan's quake-hit region, just 1.2 miles from Jabla, landslides swept away uncounted numbers of homes and severed roads, cutting off hundreds of communities which can still only be reached by helicopters.

Mountain slopes were shorn away, exposing gray earth and rubble that still emit great clouds of dust two weeks after the quake. Aftershocks continue to trigger new landslides, hampering efforts to clear roads for relief trucks.

A farmer and worker at the village water works, Mohammad attributes the destruction of his house to Allah's punishment for some sin he's committed. But other villagers offer an explanation that environmental experts have long expressed to little heed.

"If there had been more trees we would not have lost as much," said Qayoon Shah, a young teacher, standing by the ruins of the village school. "It is our mistake."

Nearby from Jabla's heights, house builder Haday Tullah surveyed a panorama of villages precariously perched on totally bald or patchily forested slopes scarred by telltale trails of old landslides.

Like Mohammad, who says he's cut trees and grazed cattle on the slope above his house, the 60-year-old builder has unwittingly contributed to the destruction, having felled trees for logging companies and the Indian army in the 1960s.

"The forests were once very thick but the generations pass so people have to build houses and collect firewood and the trees disappear," he said.

Spawned more often by heavy rains and flash floods during the monsoons, landslides and high-speed mud flows plague the entire "roof of the world," the 1,800-mile arc of the Himalayas that runs through seven countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east.

In this once remote region, commercial logging, local felling and overgrazing have exposed rock and soil, making the land less compact and able to retain water, which now rushes easily down mountainsides to set off what some call "ecological landmines."

Adding to the threat are watershed mismanagement, wholesale replacements of natural forest by tree plantations, which don't absorb as much water, and greater, irregular waterflows as global warming melts Himalayan glaciers, said Nithin Sethi, of the Delhi-based Center for Science and Technology.

Scores of villages were swept away in 2002 by landslides in areas of Pakistan not far from current scenes of devastation. A 1999 earthquake and accompanying landslides killed 100 people and destroyed 6,000 houses in the Chamoli area of northwest India. A year earlier, torrential rains released mountainsides that obliterated the Indian-Tibetan border town of Malpa, killing 205.

"The problem is immense and it's a daily one," Sethi said. "New towns are going up in the mountains, urbanization and populations are increasing, so we are now perhaps more aware of the impact than before."


AP correspondent Matthew Pennington contributed to this report from Pakistan