Concerns over earthquake preparedness

A minor earthquake on 23 August measuring 3.0 on the Richter scale in Bangladesh’s Chittagong and Rangamati hill districts has sparked fears of a more devastating quake and prompted concerns about preparedness.

The tremor’s epicentre was around 40km from Bangladesh’s second city, Chittagong, but resulted in no casualties.

It comes less than a month after a 5.6 degree quake rocked the capital, Dhaka, and other parts of the impoverished nation on 26 July. On 20 March two mild tremors were felt in Dhaka and three other northeastern districts. On 7 November 2007, a 6.0 degree quake shook the southeastern region. Its centre was at Roninpara, about 70km from Chittagong, cracking open a fault in the hills of Chittagong and Khagrachhari districts.

The recent tremors are prompting concern that Bangladesh - one of the most densely populated countries, and the world’s seventh most populous (over 150 million people) - may be in for a more devastating quake some time soon.

Due to its geographic location Bangladesh is considered high risk for earthquakes, according to experts.

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Call for better preparedness

A roundtable on 31 March 2008 organised by the Network for Information Response and Preparedness Activities on Disaster (NIRAPAD), a national non-governmental organisation (NGO) - in association with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and CARE Bangladesh - concluded that the loss of lives and property could be reduced significantly if the government took proper preparedness and mitigation measures.

“We never think of earthquakes like [we do] floods or cyclones. Whenever a jolt occurs in the country we panic and after a while we forget the most disastrous calamity,” said Roksana Hafiz Ahmed, a professor of urban and regional planning at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

She suggested including disaster awareness and preparedness in school and college textbooks, and training first response units of the Bangladesh Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“Unplanned urbanisation, overpopulation, poorly constructed structures, lack of coordination between institutions concerned, inadequacy of recovery tools and lack of awareness among the people place the country at high risk,” said A.S.M. Maksud Kamal, an expert on earthquake and tsunami preparedness at the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) within the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management.

Syed Humayun Akhtar, a geology professor at Dhaka University, agreed that the mild quakes of recent times could signal that a major one was brewing.

Records show that the ‘Gar’ (highland) of Madhupur in the outskirts of Dhaka, and the ‘Haors’ (vast lowlands) of Sylhet were created by a major earthquake in 1762. The Teesta river changed its course as a result of an earthquake of 1787; some 75,000sqkm of the Khasia hills (now Meghalaya State of India) were destroyed by an earthquake in 1891; a major earthquake in 1896 changed the course of the Brahmaputra river.

Lack of direction

Experts cite a clear lack of direction in the government’s earthquake preparedness efforts.

A study by the Bangladesh Earthquake Society warned that a major earthquake could destroy 28 percent of buildings and structures in Dhaka alone.

“A relatively long period of `rest’ from any major seismic activity, and high attention paid to other disasters such as cyclones and floods, have led to a neglect of disaster preparedness for earthquakes - the most destructive of all natural disasters,” said a statement by the society on 4 August.


Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Students at a girls' dormitory in Dhaka look at a ceiling damaged by the 26 July quake

Sirajul Islam, chief urban planner of Dhaka City Corporation (DCC), said the national building construction code of 1993 was updated in 2006, but no ministry or department had been assigned to implement it.

Abul Kalam of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology alleged building codes were often not adhered to: “Most of the buildings in major cities are built without following the building codes,” he said.

He said the Public Works Department (PWD) had stopped working on earthquake preparedness, and called on the government to turn the PWD into an institution with the authority to demolish and reconstruct buildings.

Fire services

Speaking at the March roundtable, a representative of the Fire Service Department said all efforts would be in vain unless modern equipment was available for disaster management.

In another seminar on 24 June 2008, Director of Fire Service and Civil Defence Motiur Rahman said 62,000 volunteers would be trained to deal with quakes and other natural disasters, but no time frame was mentioned.

The European Commission’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Stefan Frowein, said the training programme had been in the pipeline for a few years, and that China’s 12 May Sichuan earthquake was a timely reminder of the importance of being prepared.

“We want to make the fire service more alert, more able to respond. We are equipping them in a modern way,” he said.

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