Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 5, Issue 37, Tuesday, September 21, 2010


fault lines

In wake of a multiple-tremor week and a half, including the 4.8 Richter Scale tremor that jolted parts of the country on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, it has become increasingly important to accept the severity of the earthquake situation in Bangladesh and attempt to get a realistic idea of exactly how risk-prone we are as a nation and more importantly, where we stand in terms of disaster management.

As is always the case with impending disasters (or at least what is believed to be impending), speculation spreads like wildfire and mass panic leads to an exponential birthing of rumours. Much is being said about the alleged frequency or time span within which earthquakes should or can occur in Bangladesh, but the question still remains as to how accurately a natural disaster -- and that too one which takes a handful of seconds to devastate -- can be forecasted by calendar or statistical probability.

However much cynics may deny the possibility of statistical prediction or however quick believers may be to accept such forecasting, in actuality accuracy lies somewhere between the two extremes. Although recorded history of earthquakes in Bangladesh does not date as far back as countries such as China with their ten centuries' worth of records, the earliest recorded 1762 earthquake in the Sitakunda region is perhaps the best starting point so far as predictions go. Director-In-Charge of the BUET-Japan Institute of Disaster Prevention and Urban Safety, Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, explains that significant UNDP-funded research has been conducted in an attempt to better understand the timeline within which earthquakes in and around Bangladesh have hit.

'Although predictions about earthquakes can seldom be fully accurate, evidence from various tests such as soil trenching do indicate a 250-300 year poison period for Bangladesh,' Ansary says. He continues to stress however the near impossibility of forecasting earthquakes, which essentially sets them apart from other natural disasters such as floods and cyclones, both of which are ongoing processes of sorts that materialise over days or weeks and aspects such as water levels and wind direction can be gauged for precaution.

Should widespread fears be confirmed, any massive earthquake that hits Bangladesh will be purely natural as opposed to man-made (reservoir induced) or due to volcanic eruptions, but it can be argued that the extent of the damage is very well dependant upon choices we make or have made in the past few decades.

'International construction regulations stipulate that fully brick structures can be no higher than two storeys, with floors above that requiring the use of columns. Most local buildings constructed between the 60s and 70s were built as single-storey units and hence complied with this regulation but in later years, the structures were increased until third and even fourth floors without the use of columns.', explains architect Luthful Haider. 'As a result, the load-taking capacity of the buildings has been compromised leading to much higher chances of collapse and damage in the event of an earthquake,' he continues.

Whether the possibility of earthquakes is justifiably fear inducing or not, the state of our national disaster management and rescue operation services certainly is cause for concern. Ironically (or tragically) enough, those who are meant to be our first points of contact in the event of a natural disaster of such grotesque magnitudes, will arguably be the worst affected. With a meagre thirteen fire brigade centres, inclusive of headquarters and offices, to cater to the entire capital, only one stands well-equipped and earthquake proof.

Estimates suggest that there are approximately 360,000 independent houses in Dhaka, around 25 percent of which will collapse should a massive earthquake occur, with a predicted death toll of over 1.5 lakhs. How well our search and rescue operators will perform in such a situation can be understood from what transpired in the Rangs Bhaban incident a few years ago. Where only a couple of floors of one building caved, it took in excess of one week to rescue and retrieve survivors and the dead so little can be hoped for when there will be 70-75,000 crumbled buildings at hand. National medical service facilities such as the DMCH building lie in similar dire straits, as does the capacity of the various wings of the armed forces that are shy of crores worth of equipment such as cameras to search for survivors and brick/slab cutting machinery.

In spite of or perhaps because of the state of our search and rescue facilities, the importance of personal precautionary measures cannot quite be stressed enough. With new apartment complexes, for example, the ground floors are usually car-parking facilities and hence constructed of less walls and more columns. The absence of solid walls in between the parking lots weakens the very base of the building making it susceptible to collapse in the event of the earth's plates moving.

Ansary further elaborates that where new dwellings are concerned, buildings can be made earthquake-proof for an extra Tk10 per square feet that enables the inclusion of an additional rod encircling in the columns making them fit to withstand a tremor that measures 6 on the Richter Scale. 'If homeowners can spend Tk.3000-4000 per square feet to buy an apartment, how much does an extra Tk 10 honestly weigh when it is a matter of life and death?' he asks.

With little or no intention to add to what has already become a panic-stricken phenomena and to neither undermine its severity, it is important to face the facts for what they are: we have already had a teaser with a 4.8 scale tremor and and in Richter Scale terms, a rise by one point increases the amount of energy released by 32 times, and by proportion a rise by two induces an energy increase by 1024 times (32x32).

When it comes down to mere survival, it is always the age-old adages that will hold. If a stitch in time (a wall here or a rod there) will save nine, this is as best a time as any to get stitching.

By Subhi Shama
Photographer: Sazzad Ibne Sayeed
Model: Shahin Sultana
The photographs are dramatised depictions of what might transpire in the event of an earthquake.

Earthquake preparedness

Although there are no guarantees of safety during an earthquake, identifying potential hazards ahead of time and advance planning can save lives and significantly reduce injuries and property damage.

What to do during an earthquake
Be aware that some earthquakes are actually foreshocks and a larger earthquake might occur. Minimise your movements to a few steps to a nearby safe place and stay indoors until the shaking has stopped and you are sure exiting is safe.

If indoors: Drop to the ground, take cover by getting under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture, and hold on until the shaking stops. If there isn't a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building.

Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures or furniture.

Use a doorway for shelter only if it is in close proximity to you and if you know it is a strongly supported, load-bearing doorway.

Stay inside until shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Research has shown that most injuries occur when people inside buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave.
Do not use the elevators.

If outdoors: Stay there. Move away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires. Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops.

Three ways to plan ahead:
These simple precautions will go a long way.

Check for hazards at home
Fasten shelves securely to walls. Place large or heavy objects on lower shelves. Hang heavy items such as mirrors away from beds, couches, and anywhere people sit. Brace overhead light fixtures. Repair defective electrical wiring and leaky gas connections. (These are potential fire risks). Repair any deep cracks in ceilings or foundations; get expert advice if there are signs of structural defects.

Identify safe places indoors and outdoors
Under sturdy furniture such as a heavy desk or table or against an inside wall, interior columns and beams, can serve as safe zones. Other safe zones are in the open, away from buildings, trees, and telephone and electrical lines, and overpasses.

Educate yourself and family members
Hang emergency telephone number (police- helpline: 999, DMP-7124000, Fire station-control room: 01713038181, 955555, 9556667, and hospital: 8626812, 8626823, 86266812) at a suitable position at your house.

Teach children how and when to call police, fire department and other emergency agency. Teach all family members how and when to turn off gas, electricity, and water. Identify escape routes within the building.

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
- LS Desk



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