Tuesday, 30 May, 2023

Earthquake and Our Preparedness

Zulfiquer Ahmed Amin

All hell broke loose with a powerful earthquake of 7.8 magnitudes in the Richter scale recently, wreaking havoc across a drape of Turkey and Syria, killing more than 52,700 people with 129,490 maimed, 0.87 million people displaced with crumple of 6589 buildings, apparently the deadliest earthquake in Turkey and Syria in recent history. The material damage rose to USD 89.2 billion. The ramifications of this are broad and long lasting, affecting deaths, injuries, food and livelihood, crops or anything growing across this region.

On Earth, it is estimated that there is an earthquake every 30 seconds. But the bulk of those are too weak to be identified. A magnitude of 4.0 earthquake is only equivalent to about 6 tons of TNT explosives, but because the Richter scale is a base-10 logarithmic scale, the amount of energy released increases exponentially: A magnitude 5.0 earthquake is about 200 tons of TNT, 7.0 is 199,000 tons, and 9.0 is 99,000,000 tons of TNT. About 99 million tons of TNT is enough to wipe out just about anything, and is the equivalent of about 25,000 nuclear bombs (Source: USGS).

Bangladesh sits where the Indian-Eurasia-Burma three tectonic plates meet. Currently, the Indian plate is moving in the north-east at a speed of approximately 6 cm per year and the Eurasian plate is moving north at 2 centimeters per year above the Indian plate. There are five major fault zones in and around Bangladesh, namely Bogra fault zone, Tripura fault zone, Shilong Plateau, Dauki fault zone and Assam fault zone. Thus, Bangladesh is a location of 13 earthquake prone areas, and Chattogram, Chattogram Hill Tracts, and Jaintiapur of Sylhet remain in extreme risk zone. Dhaka the capital of Bangladesh, with 30,093 residents per square kilometer leads the ranking of cities with the highest population density in 2022, has been marked as one of the 20 cities most vulnerable to earthquakes in the world.

RAJUK has an area of 1,528 sq km under its jurisdiction. It includes almost 2.1 million buildings. Due to rapid expansion of Dhaka City, 65% of its area is soft land-filled, like Purbachal, Uttara 3rd Project, Jhilmil etc. Only 35% of Dhaka area located on southern part of Modhupur Gar which is composed of red and hard soil, developed almost 20 lac years ago are the old and main part of Dhaka are strong enough to resist mild to moderate earthquake. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), Dhaka University (DU), Jahangirnagar University, Jagannath University, Engineering Education Directorate, Public Health Engineering Directorate are the most vulnerable structurally. RAJUK while permitting for building construction observes only the architectural component, but not the structural design, which is most relevant in the context of earthquake resilience. In a survey in 2018, RAJUK found that 94.76% of structures in Mirpur, Mohammadpur and Pallabi, 93% in Rampura, Motijheel and Khilgaon, and 89% in Dhanmondi do not meet the design and structural pre-requirements. There are almost 0.6 million five-storied or higher buildings in Dhaka which are the prime target of earthquake disaster. Collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 which killed at least 1,132 people and injured more than 2,500 is a barefaced example of violations of existing rules and regulations related to building constructions contributing to human tragedy.

Ever since earthquake records have been compiled in this part of South Asia, seven strong earthquakes have hit us. In 1885 an earthquake of 7.1 Magnitude occurred in Sherpur, Bogra. In 1762 an earthquake of 8.5 Magnitude caused the creation of the Saint Martin’s Island in Bangladesh. The last great earthquake, the Assam earthquake, which scored 8.5 on the Richter scale, occurred in 1950, and was 780 miles from Dhaka. Experts opine that an earthquake of 7.0 Magnitude repeats in every 100 to 150 years, and an earthquake of 8.0 repeats in every 250 to 350 years. In this account, a heavy earthquake is visibly knocking at our door to explode at any time.

There are two phases for earthquake disaster management. First is, pre-earthquake preventive measures. If one taka is spent in prevention, that saves ten taka after disaster strikes. It involves rules, regulations, strict monitoring and early signal system. Usually, there remains a time period of 20 to 60 seconds, when measures like switching off all electric, gas and water line can be arranged by built-in automated process. We should avoid use of blazed-bricks, and replace it with concrete-slab which is cheaper and gives more shock absorbing capacity during tremor. We should emphasize more on research on earthquake to develop appropriate locally adaptive technologies to early detect and mitigate promptly. National policies and programs require firm political commitments and accountability of the responsible authorities. The government does have in place guidelines and plans like Building Code (BNBC) 2015 to deal with the aftermath of an earthquake, but application on ground have proved always an abysmal failure. There are also guidelines to make existing risky buildings earthquake-resistant through ‘retrofitting’ method, which is effective and less costly. National Building Code 2015 has mandated that no house should be built without beam. But the rules are not followed.

The second phase, the post earthquake measures need building capacity for prompt response, rescue and evacuation operations and appropriate treatment facilities in hospitals. We need to have earmarked facilities across the country to offer shelter to the homeless people after an episode of quake. We should train good numbers of volunteers and rescue teams. We need to widen our appallingly narrow roads to allow civil defence and fire fighting vehicles to navigate to the destination. Add to it, we need the sophisticated technology and the modern machineries to recover people from the collapsed buildings. All medical facilities need have contingency plan, required manpower, ambulances, and medical stocks. There needs to be adequate coordination among various agencies assigned to act after the earthquake. Mere 492 Fire Stations across country, with meager 13,058 manpower in Fire Service and Civil Defence, are not adequate to tackle a major earthquake.

Though RAJUK is solely responsible to determine the earthquake vulnerability of buildings in its area of jurisdiction, unfortunately in the last 12 years they have not prepared any list. In Bangladesh, we have almost 40 to 50 private facilities that have the capability to monitor building construction. It is time to engage them as third party to support RAJUK, Chattogram, Khulna, Rajshahi Development Authority and city corporations.

For some years, many small tremors have signaled the imminent advent of a large scale earthquake to jolt us any time soon. If this occurs, then the moot question will be whether we are ready to cope with it and move relatively unscathed. Unfortunately the answer is not comforting. Recent quake incidence in Turkey and Syria is an eye opener for us. A heartbreaking photo that appeared in the ‘Daily Prothom Alo’ on 7 February 2023 of a grieved Turk holding tight the hand of his deceased daughter, trapped under the mammoth concrete slab, is the reality of our incapacity towards the wrath of the nature. The sooner we acknowledge our short-comings, and act, the better it is for our safety. We aspire to be a developed nation by 2041, but our hard earned development and infrastructures like Padma Bridge, Jamuna Bridge, Karnaphuli Tunnel, and ambitious flyover across the country will scramble in ruins in matter of seconds, if we do not take measures to protect us before it is too late.


The writer is an expert in Healthcare and Hospital Administration and former

Hospital Director of BSMMU