Bangladesh on Monday woke up to a 6.7 earthquake, the severest the country experienced in recent times. Initial reports say at least three persons died in Dhaka, Rajshahi and Lalmonirhat. The US Geological Survey measured the tremor at 6.8 on the Richter scale in the beginning but later scaled it down to 6.7.
Modern science is yet to develop any mechanism through which earthquakes and tsunamis could be predicted well before these occur. Animals sensed it in the Andamans when a tremor, accompanied by tsunami, occurred there years ago. Against this backdrop, there is no other way but to be prepared to minimise deaths and damages to property in the event of a tremor. Scores of roundtables and workshops were held in Bangladesh in the recent past to highlight such a need for earthquake preparedness. But sadly, there is no visible attempt to create awareness among the masses of people how to react to such natural disasters or what they should do when buildings start trembling due to earthquake. The deaths in Bangladesh this time reflected this.
Bangladesh today is witnessing a faster pace in urbanisation. Major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong have seen unprecedented growth of residential buildings built by hundreds of private developers. There has not yet been any concerted effort or any plan to examine whether such buildings already in place were constructed as per the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC). No real estate company has any credible proof to show to the clients that they built quake-resistant houses. The buyers also do not have any opportunity to verify whether the buildings or apartments so built meet the requirements of the BNBC.
Unfortunately the Rajdhani Unnayan Katripakkha (Rajuk), which gives formal approval to layout plans, does not inspect the under-construction buildings nor does it have adequate manpower to do it. And it is simply impossible to assess the vulnerability of thousands of buildings constructed in cities like Dhaka and Chittagong. But experts have warned time and again that three active fault lines of the tectonic plates in Modhupur, Dauki and eastern boundary may trigger a major earthquake any time with the epicentre within the Bangladesh territory. The government buildings constructed recently by the Public Works Department were comparatively safer in earthquakes, but the old ones were risky, said the Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department.
Buildings made on soft soil by filling marshy land are most vulnerable to a major earthquake, according to the experts. Out of 127-square kilometre area of Dhaka City Corporations, around 35 per cent land have been developed by earth filling and one-third of it has already been used for structures, according to Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansary of the civil engineering department at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) and founding general secretary of Bangladesh Earthquake Society. Such marshy land was filled up without any scientific soil improvement method and the rest of the soft soil was also made ready for erecting structures, he observed.
Prof Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, yet another noted civil engineer and founder president of Bangladesh Earthquake Society is of the same view. He said, "Wetlands have been filled up indiscriminately and the softer the soil is, the more vulnerable it is to earthquakes." But unfortunately, conservable flood flow zones earmarked in the Detailed Area Plan of Dhaka city were massively filled up mainly for housing while the relevant authorities kept mum. With the expiry of the DAP last year, Rajuk is preparing a Regional Development Plan, in which the earthquake concern has not been incorporated despite availability of relevant findings and data.
Mrityunjoy Das and Andrew Jenkins, who are working for James P. Grant School of Public Health at BRAC University, in a recent write-up depicted a grim picture of Bangladesh's preparedness in case of a doomsday due to severe earthquake. They said, "Intense urbanisation and industrialisation over the last four decades have caused drastic changes in Dhaka in terms of environmental components, topography and population density. Once one of the most beautiful cities of the world in the 16th century, it was ranked second from the bottom (139th) among the global cities in The Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Index."
They went on: "If this is not enough to be alarmed and jump into action without any delay, there is more to add to the dismal scenario. Bangladesh sits where three active tectonic plates meet including the presence of historical seismicity and a plate boundary in the east and several faults in and around the country. While Bangladesh has been extremely fortunate not to be hit by a major earthquake in the last 85 years or so, the chance of a major earthquake is looming."
In a blog, Kevin Krajick, Senior science writer of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, fears that "the next great earthquake" is "lurking under Bangladesh".
Now it is very important to ensure enforcement of the national building code immediately and introduction of automatic shutdown of gas and electricity supply lines in the event of an earthquake to reduce the impact of the disaster and the number of casualties. It is also crucial to have the central command and the second and third alternatives for an effective and efficient rescue operation. Bangladesh should learn management lessons from Nepal, incorporate chapters on earthquake and fire hazard in academic curriculum, prepare local database on the number of inhabitants and location of safe buildings with the help of ward councillors.
It is not a question of if, but when Bangladesh starts preparing to face onslaught of an earthquake. Monday's quake is certainly strong enough to jolt the country's policy planners and those who are at the helm of affairs into immediate action in the field of preparedness.