Over 33,000 people have so far been killed and thousands injured by the devastating earthquake which struck Turkey and Syria on February 6. The death toll is expected to keep rising. It was the most powerful tremor to strike the two countries in nearly a century. The 7.8-magnitude quake, followed by dozens of aftershocks, wiped out entire sections of major cities in Turkey’s southeastern and Syria’s northern regions. Nearly 25,000 buildings collapsed or were badly damaged in the earthquake. According to the United Nations, 23 million people could be affected by the quake and rating agency Fitch says the earthquake could cause economic losses exceeding $4 billion.
This has brought to the fore the obvious question: What will happen if an earthquake of such scale strikes Bangladesh? Does the country have preparations to face such a devastating quake? Are we equipped with the necessary tools and prepared to launch a rescue operation immediately afterwards? We know the Earth’s crust is made up of separate bits, called plates, which nestle alongside one another. These plates often try to move but are prevented by the friction of rubbing up against an adjoining one. But sometimes the pressure builds until one plate suddenly jerks across, causing the surface to move, which is called an earthquake.
Bangladesh lies where three tectonic plates – the Indian Plate, the Eurasian Plate, and the Burmese Plate – meet. Of them, the Indian plate is currently diving under the Burmese plate in the northeast direction at a speed of around 46mm per year and the Eurasian one is moving in the north at around 2cm per year. The Indian and Burmese plates have been stuck for 400 years and the growing strain could eventually liberate itself in a large earthquake.
There are five major fault zones in and around Bangladesh. These are Bogura fault zone, Tripura fault zone, Shillong plateau, Dauki fault zone and Assam fault zone. Of them, Bogura, Tripura and Shillong fault zones can trigger a maximum 7-magnitude earthquake while Dauki a 7.3-magnitude one and the Assam fault zone can produce a quake of the highest 8.5 magnitude. Bangladesh’s northern and eastern regions are at high risk of earthquakes. Besides, the entire Dhaka city will be at high risk if a major earthquake strikes it as most of the buildings were constructed here violating the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) and the population density is high.
According to seismologists, as many as 300,000 people could die if a 7-magnitude earthquake strikes Dhaka right now. Apart from demolishing buildings, the quake will turn the entire city into a fireball due to the haphazard power and gas transmission lines. According to them, a major earthquake usually takes place in a region every century with the last major one occurring on the Madhupur fault in 1918 followed by another in 1822. The experts say there is a rise in the frequency of mild and moderate over the last few years and this could be the signal of a major tremor anytime soon.
A joint survey of the Integrated Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2009 revealed that if an earthquake, measuring 7 magnitude or more strikes Bangladesh, 72,000 buildings in major cities such as Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet would collapse and 135,000 others would be damaged. Besides, it will generate 7 crore tonnes of concrete rubble. Given the reality that there was a rise in the number of multi-storey buildings as well as population, the consequences will be disastrous if there is a big earthquake right now.
According to Fire Service and Civil Defence, 60 per cent of the buildings have been constructed in the capital after changing their original designs, putting them at risk of collapse during a major tremor. Besides, about 76 per cent of the roads are narrow and this will make it difficult to carry out rescue operations in case of an earthquake. Explosions in gas, electricity and water lines would exacerbate the situation. Besides, soft soil in parts of the capital makes buildings vulnerable to earthquakes. Dhaka city’s 35 per cent of soil is red, which is good for constructing buildings. So, there will be less damage to buildings constructed on such soil during any quake. However, the rest 65 per cent of the soil is soft, making establishments on such soil highly vulnerable to tremors and so the extent of damage will be high.
As per the rules, the construction of a building abiding by all the rules is not enough to reside in it. There is a provision for receiving Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) occupancy certificate stating that the building is constructed maintaining the RAJUK drawing and the building code before occupying it. However, the rate of taking this certificate is very low. Again agencies concerned lack the capability to test whether the buildings that have already been constructed are earthquake-resistant or not. Experts have suggested that the job should be done after hiring private firms or through outsourcing. The capability of RAJUK, city corporations, FSCD and other agencies concerned should be enhanced to face a major quake. There should be arrangements for backup communications so that the rescue operation can be run smoothly if the normal communication system collapses. Necessary equipment should be procured for FSCD and regular drills should be arranged so that firefighters can operate those properly during an emergency. RAJUK must ensure that buildings are constructed following the building code and those that have already been constructed are made earthquake-resistant through retrofitting. Many landlords are unaware of the matter. They should be made aware of the matter. Steps should also be taken to create area-wise volunteers to involve them in emergency response activities. Above all, awareness should be raised about earthquakes.
The writer is a columnist