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Science - Associated Press - updated 1:16 PM ET Sep 3
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Monday September 3 1:16 PM ET

South Asia Wary About Quake Prediction

By NIRMALA GEORGE, Associated Press Writer

NEW DELHI, India (AP) - Seismologists are dismissing it as alarmist, governments are ignoring it and people on the street seem indifferent to a U.S. study that warns South Asia is overdue for a massive earthquake.

The researchers recently said tremendous underground stress built up in the 1,250-mile Himalayan fault could force a rupture soon - in geological terms - and produce a great quake of 8.1 to 8.3 magnitude.

Such a quake could affect some 50 million people in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, they said, and kill at least 200,000.

Although images of the devastating earthquake that struck the western Indian state of Gujarat in January are still fresh in their minds, people in New Delhi expressed little worry about the prediction.

``What can we do even if we know an earthquake is about to hit Delhi? There's nowhere to hide,'' said Neeta Lal, sitting behind the counter of her pharmacy. ``See what happened in Gujarat? When your time comes, it comes.''

At least 14,000 people died and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed when a 7.9 magnitude quake shook Gujarat on Jan. 26.

Seismologists in the region, while agreeing with the study led by Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said the U.S. team's findings were not new. They also stressed that they could not predict when a quake might happen with any helpful accuracy.

``Bilham says the earthquake could strike 'very soon, geologically.' In geological terms, this could mean a hundred years,'' said Janardan Negi, scientist emeritus at India's National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad.

Seismologists at the Indian government's meteorological department in the capital also dismissed the predictions as alarmist.

``I don't understand why this is big news. Ten years ago he said the same thing - that an earthquake would occur maybe in 100 years' time,'' said scientist S.N. Bhattacharya.

However, building professionals in New Delhi said they believed Bilham's estimate of casualties was conservative.

``I hate to think what the scene would be if a Gujarat type earthquake struck New Delhi,'' said Sudhir Vohra, an architect who specializes in designing buildings for areas prone to quakes. ``Earthquakes (news - web sites) don't kill people. It's shoddy construction that kills.''

Gautam Bhatia, another architect, estimated more than half the buildings in New Delhi, a city of 14 million people, have gone up without authorization or monitoring. ``The government has not approved their building plans, but money has changed hands and here they are,'' he said.

In neighboring Pakistan, Malik Salahuddin, an official with the Pakistan meteorological department in the northern city of Peshawar, called Bilham's predictions exaggerated.

Ardeshir Cowasjee, member of a citizens' rights group in the Pakistani port of Karachi, said most high-rise buildings in the city would collapse because they have been constructed in violation of building laws.

``It would be a doomsday scenario,'' he said. ``Tens of thousands of lives would be lost in the case of a major earthquake.''

Bushara Riaz, a middle-aged housewife in Lahore, views the threat of an earthquake as a warning from God. ``We are inviting Allah's wrath by our wayward lifestyle, obscenity and corruption. Allah wipes out such nations,'' she said.

In Bangladesh, most people had not heard of the study. Bangladesh has a caretaker government whose main job is to oversee elections in early October and it ignored the American team's findings.

With a population of nearly 9 million, Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, is one of the world's most overcrowded cities. The city has grown rapidly with multistoried buildings on canals and swamps, land that is considered most vulnerable during an earthquake.

``Let's pray it does not happen. There is nothing much we can do,'' said Abdur Rahim, a storekeeper in Dhaka's Nawabpur district, which has thousands of old buildings.

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