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Cover Story

On Shaky Ground

Collapsed buildings and fires have exposed the deficiencies of the disaster management agencie

Rowshon Ara remembers vividly the day the earth shook beneath her feet. She was living in Kobe, Japan with her husband, who was doing his PhD at a local university. “I was cooking dinner when suddenly the building began to tremble,” recalls Rowshon Ara. “There was this sharp jolt. Then a more rhythmic side to side swaying. I remember the TV falling off the table; glasses rolling and crashing onto the floor. I thought the world was coming to an end.”
The Kobe earthquake of 1995 killed 6400 people. Rowshon Ara's family survived. But when she tried describing her ordeal to relatives back home in Bangladesh, she was surprised and frustrated. “I just couldn't make them understand,” she says. “I don't think anyone can imagine the horror of a major earthquake until they have lived through it. People in Bangladesh don't have a clue.”

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Bangladesh experiences minor jolts now and again, most recently during Eid ul Fitr last month. But most people continue to regard earthquakes as a minor talking point rather than a looming threat. The reason for this complacency is obvious: Bangladesh has not experienced a major earthquake in over 90 years.

“The last major earthquake with its epicentre in Bangladesh was the Srimongal Earthquake of 1918,” says Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, professor of civil engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (Buet). “This tremor occurred on July 18, 1918 with a magnitude of 7.6 and epicentre at Srimangal, Maulvi Bazar. A lot of damage occurred in Srimongal, but in Dhaka only minor effects were reported.”

Experts say Dhaka has gone 130 years without a major quake while Chittagong has crossed 250 years and Sylhet about 100 years. This “seismic gap” raises the prospect of a powerful earthquake striking Bangladesh sooner rather than later.

“Bangladesh has some major fault lines, including the Dauki fault, Madhupur fault and the tectonic plate boundaries,” says Dr ASM Maksud Kamal, national expert on Earthquake and Tsunami Preparedness of the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP). “Our research shows that a lot of energy has built up in these fault lines over the last century or so. Small quakes have occurred, but the epicentres of these releases have not been along the fault lines where the energy has built up. So the fear is that the pent up energy will be released soon, triggering a major earthquake in Bangladesh.”

Millions live in dilapidated houses at great risk.

Earthquakes are among the most destructive and terrifying forces that nature can unleash. The outer crust of the earth is made up of tectonic plates. These huge plates that form the globe's surface slowly move over, under, and past each other. Usually the movement is gradual. Sometimes the plates are locked together at their edges, unable to release the accumulating energy. When the pent up energy grows strong enough, the plates break free. The abrupt release of strain that has accumulated over a long time causes sudden movements of the earth. If these jolts occur in a populated area, it causes death and destruction on a massive scale. The activity of plate tectonics have shaped and reshaped the earth over millions of years. The very force that gave life can take it away at any moment.

For Bangladesh, the danger is very real. Experts say it is a question of “when rather than if”. The country sits on several seismically active faults which are the focal point of tremors. These include the Dauki Fault which passes from east to west close to Sylhet, and the Madhupur Fault which is in Dhaka division not far from the capital. Then there are the Plate Boundary faults that run along the eastern edge of the country.

Small tremors have increased in number over the last few years. The observatory at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) recorded 86 tremors of over 4.0 magnitude during January 2006-May 2009. Many scientists fear these could be “foreshocks” that herald the arrival of a bigger quake.

“The timing of an earthquake cannot really be predicted,” says Prof Ansary who is also Vice President of Bangladesh Earthquake Society. “It often strikes when least expected. All we can do is reduce our vulnerability and prepare ourselves for a disaster.”

Unplanned urbanisation with utter disregard for the Building Code has led to a dangerous situation.
Buildings erected on land that has not been compacted are prone to collapse during an earthquake.

The great Indian earthquake of 1897 caused significant damage to much of Dhaka. Since then Dhaka has been transformed into a desperately overcrowded metropolis of some 13 million people. Over the decades nothing significant has been done to prepare the teeming city for disaster. Until recently there was no contingency plan. Instead, the city has been allowed to fill with shoddily constructed buildings to accommodate the ever-increasing population. There is every danger that when an earthquake strikes, the haphazardly built buildings will fall like houses of cards.

According to a UN study conducted in 1999, Dhaka is the world's most earthquake vulnerable city followed by Tehran. A recent survey carried out under Phase-1 of the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) under the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management found that around 250,000 buildings in the three major cities of Bangladesh -- Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet -- are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes. The study raised the nightmarish prospect of more than 100,000 people dying instantly with numerous others needing hospitalisation if a 7.5 magnitude earthquake from Madhupur Fault hits the capital.

Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansary

“Unplanned urbanisation and total disregard for the National Building Code (BNBC) has led to this situation,” says Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansary. “While no building can be totally quake proof, slight modifications to the structural design during construction will make the building quake-resistant. The interesting thing is that this only adds 2-3 percent to the total cost.”

Many countries such as Japan have taken the science of quake-resistant buildings to a new level. In these tremor-prone regions, beams, columns and beam-column connections are specially designed in "structural steel special moment frames" to withstand building sway during the ground shaking that accompanies earthquakes. The more flexible a building is, the less likely it is to collapse.

A large number of buildings in Bangladesh are “soft-storey buildings” which experts say are prone to collapse during quakes. A soft storey building is a multi-storey building where one or more floors have windows, wide doors or large unobstructed spaces rather than sheer load-bearing walls. A typical soft storey building is a high-rise apartment building located over a parking garage or shops.

Building safety depends not only on the structure itself but also on the ground on which the building sits. Geologists suggest much of the soil around Dhaka is sandy and unless properly compacted during construction may cause the buildings to collapse.

“The areas where land-fill has been carried out are particularly vulnerable,” says Prof Ansary. “The sand settles during a quake, and starts to act like a layer of liquid. This dangerous phenomenon is known as liquefaction. To prevent this, the building site must be compacted with proper piling.”

Observers suggest that many of the land developers operating on the outskirts of the capital have filled up marshy land and buildings are going up with scant regard for safety.

Quake Risk Map
MF=Madhupur Fault, DF=Dauki Fault, PBF2=Plate Boundary Fault

“Rajuk has no monitoring mechanism,” says urban planner Masud Iqbal. “Rajuk has totally failed to implement BNBC.”

Many critics point the finger of blame at the real estate companies for flouting the National Building Code with impunity. Engineer Tanvirul Haque, president of Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh (Rehab) admits that some developers may be filling up low-lying areas with sand, which may precipitate disaster during an earthquake. But Eng Haque claims the more established companies design and build their high-rise structures according to BNBC.

“We build our apartments according to the latest technology and follow government guidelines. But only 15 percent of builders are members of Rehab. The majority are private builders who construct their buildings in a slipshod manner. And if we are talking about land-fill, is there any difference between Rajuk's Purbachol project and the private projects?”

Questions have been asked about the government's lack of preparedness in the face of a major catastrophe. A contingency plan has been drawn up by Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) but disaster management experts worry that implementation is still in its infancy. Past events had cruelly exposed the deficiencies of the search and rescue agencies. In February 2006 the Phoenix Building in the Tejgaon industrial area collapsed following unauthorised renovations. A major road adjacent to the site remained closed for days while the Fire Service with the assistance of the army cleared the rubble.

“If the collapse of one building creates such problems, you can imagine what would happen if 70,000 buildings collapsed,” says urban planner Masud Iqbal.

Major Motiur Rahman, Director (Development, Training and Planning) of the Fire Service claims the department has come a long way since the Phoenix disaster. “We have learnt a lot. We are taking the threat of earthquake very seriously. We have new equipment, and 44 trained instructors who are training 62000 community volunteers who will swing into action in case of a disaster.”

Rajuk has failed to ensure proper implementation of the Building Code.

Sources in the Fire Service and the Ministry of Food & Disaster Management however admitted that the community volunteers scheme had just taken off and would take about 3 years to complete. Apart from the lack of trained rescue workers, a major hurdle is the lack of coordination among different agencies. Although the disaster contingency plan has been adopted, the government is yet to designate an agency to lead and coordinate the post-disaster effort. This raises the nightmare scenario of the government struggling with committees in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

Md Farhad Hossain, Director General of the Disaster Management Bureau told the Star that a meeting had been held to designate a lead agency. “We had a meeting at the ministry to discuss this a few days ago,” he said. “There is some talk of appointing the DMB as the coordinator. But no decision has been made.”

The lack of awareness and urgency is pervasive -- from government officials to the common man on the street. Most people are not aware of the danger posed by earthquakes, or what to do in the event of a disaster. Many are gripped by a misguided sense of fatalism.

Dr ASM Maksud Kamal

Mir Shamsuddin, a trader, lives in a dilapidated building in Gandaria. He chooses not to dwell on the possibility of his house collapsing on top of him. “I have heard of earthquakes happening in other countries,” he says with a shrug. “If a tremor happens, maybe things will fall and break. We will try to run outside. What more can we do?”

Experts say people do exactly the wrong things in an earthquake, and this compounds the problem. In August last year a minor tremor caused residents of dormitories at Dhaka University to jump from balconies. Although the quake itself did not cause much damage, several people were injured by the fall.

“People must be sensitized,” says earthquake expert Dr. Kamal of CDMP. “The level of awareness is very low and it is something we need to urgently address. We have started a poster campaign to publicise the main survival points. We plan to hold quake drills at the school and ward level.”

The real benefits of being prepared are many. Earthquakes themselves rarely kill-- the main culprits are collapsed buildings, fires and ruptured gas and electric lines. Being prepared can reduce fear, anxiety, and losses that accompany disasters. Communities, families, and individuals should know what to do in the event of a quake. They should be ready to take cover during a quake and evacuate their homes when necessary. They must know how to care for their basic medical needs. The basic principles of survival in an earthquake -- drop down, take cover under a strong structure such as a table or bed, and hold on to something until the quake passes -- must be drilled into every citizen in a quake zone.

Bangladesh is no stranger to natural disasters. But an earthquake is an elemental force the onset of which cannot be accurately predicted; nor can its magnitude be mitigated. The best weapons against it are careful planning and bureaucratic actions: observing the building regulations, creating more green spaces and planning how to get people out. Bangladesh faces a race against time to get its disaster preparedness on a firm footing.

The tectonic clock is ticking.

“On a preparedness scale of 1 to 10 we are close to the bottom”

Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury is Vice Chancellor of BRAC University and President of Bangladesh Earthquake Society.

There is a lot of talk about a major earthquake hitting Bangladesh. How concerned should we be?
The sources of most major earthquakes in the world are located on boundaries of tectonic plates. The boundaries of Indian Plate (on which Bangladesh is located), Australian Plate, Eurasian Plate and the smaller Burmese Plate are close to Bangladesh. In addition to these, there are active faults within and around Bangladesh. During the last 150 years, two earthquakes of magnitude greater than 7.0 have originated in these faults.

So the possibility of similar earthquakes striking Bangladesh again exists and we should prepare ourselves for reducing the vulnerability to earthquakes.

What is the nature of the threat?
There is a popular saying that “Earthquakes do not kill people, but buildings do”. This means that the main reason for death and damages from earthquakes is failure of manmade structures. Although in many cases, landslides or changes in river courses resulting from earthquakes also lead to human casualties and property loss.

Is it possible to prepare for such a natural calamity?
Yes; while it is not possible to reduce the hazard of earthquakes, which is a natural phenomenon, it is possible to reduce the vulnerability (i.e. loss of human lives and property) by initiating proper preparatory measures.

Where is Bangladesh now in terms of preparedness on a scale of 1 to 10?
It is difficult to give a numerical value, but I would say we are close to the bottom of the scale in terms of preparedness.

What should the government do in the short and long term?
The following are some of the measures have to be initiated immediately

(i) Ensure that all new buildings are designed and constructed following the guidelines of the National Building Code.

(ii) Develop a comprehensive plan for managing post-earthquake situation. Procurement of equipment to carry out search and rescue operations under collapsed building and training manpower to operate these should be a priority.

(iii) Train community workers (volunteers) who would carry out the initial search and rescue efforts before the official agencies reach the scene.

(iv) Launch a massive public awareness campaign to sensitize the people (particularly in the high risk zones) about preparedness activities at the community and household levels.

What should individual citizens do to prepare themselves?
First of all, ensure that the houses are built properly. The common form of housing in urban areas uses load-bearing brick masonry and in most cases the owner, in consultation with masons, designs and constructs the building. These are extremely vulnerable if the height exceeds two stories. However, they may be made earthquake resistant by introducing some reinforcement inside the walls.

Is there any need or scope for international collaboration in this area?
Yes; there are search and rescue teams who are always ready to fly in with necessary equipment immediately after a disaster. The government should establish links with these so that they may be contacted and their arrival facilitated. International collaboration in education, training and research (particularly in better assessment of hazards) is essential.

There is criticism that the National Building Code is inadequate and does not take into account the threat of earthquakes?
This criticism is unfounded. When the present code viz. Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC), was prepared in 1993, it incorporated the latest global knowledge in building technology and an assessment of risks based on data available at that time. However, during the last 16 years, considerable new knowledge has been generated both globally and in Bangladesh. I expect these would be incorporated in the updated BNBC which is being prepared and hopefully adopted as BNBC 2010.

Can existing buildings be made quake-resistant?
Yes; the process is known as retro-fitting. However, the process is expensive and economics would dictate whether a building should be retrofitted or demolished.


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