Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, is ill-prepared for earthquakes due to lack of awareness and unplanned urbanization, say experts.
“Total disregard for the national building code by the builders has left Dhaka extremely susceptible,” said earthquake expert and civil engineer Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, from Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET).
In 2011 Dhaka’s roughly 11 million people were rocked by three earthquakes each registering at least six on the Richter scale - but without any casualties or damage, according to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.
The Department said the most recent quake in September did not cause casualties due to “sheer luck” because the tremor stopped in less than two minutes.
But had luck not been on the capital’s side, the population would have been ill-prepared for any fallout, said Manish Kumar Agarwal, a programme manager for disaster preparedness at Oxfam’s Dhaka office.
In a “worst-case scenario”, more than 100,000 people may die and numerous others need hospitalization if a 7.5 magnitude earthquake from the nearby Madhupur Fault were to hit the capital, according to a 2009 study by the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) under the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management.
Some 400,000 buildings in the country’s three largest cities - Dhaka, Chittagong some 200km south of Dhaka, and Sylhet in the northeast - are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes and would be damaged “beyond repair” in the event of a major quake, according to the CDMP study.
There are an estimated 849 major hospitals in these three cities, but most would be damaged or non-functional in the event of a major quake, according to the World Health Organization office in Bangladesh, which has since 2010 funded a health team to conduct hospital safety assessments nationwide.
The government is recruiting 62,000 “urban community volunteers” to be disaster responders, of which “7,000 have already been trained and given tools to conduct search and rescue operations,” Mohammad Abdul Qayyum, CDMP national project director, told IRIN.
Qayyum added that earthquake preparedness has been included in the school curriculum through regular drills as of 2004, and the government drafted its first earthquake emergency plan in 2009.
According to Qayyum, CDMP is also conducting training programmes for masons and builders in cooperation with the government’s Housing and Building Research Institute.
“There are also plans to retrofit selected buildings such as hospitals to strengthen them against quakes,” he said.
Experts calculate that from the design stage, it costs an additional 4 percent to make a building resilient against disasters, but such costs multiply after the building’s construction.
Action Aid, Concern Universal, Concern Worldwide, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Oxfam GB and Plan International, under the platform of the National Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction and Response Initiative, launched a media campaign three months after the September 2011 earthquake to educate residents about earthquake risks.
“Me, my wife and our six-year-old boy were running down to streets out of fear in our home, which is a 21-storey apartment building, at the time of an earthquake on 18 September 2011 as the whole building was shaking,” said resident Anwar Munir, still “haunted” by what turned out to be a 6.8-scale earthquake.
Dhaka is identified as one of world’s “megacities” - cities with at least 10 million residents - most at risk of liquefaction in the event of an earthquake, where soil can liquefy, according to the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in a 2010 publication.
“We still don’t know what to do in an event of an earthquake,” added Munir.