‘An earthquake is imminent, today, tomorrow or 50 years later’: how will Dhaka fare when a major earthquake hits Bangladesh?

Experts interviewed for this article categorically said Dhaka is under serious risk due to unplanned urbanisation and for buildings constructed without following the earthquake preparedness code

Obaidur MasumSenior Correspondentbdnews24.com
Published : 9 Feb 2023, 10:42 PM
Updated : 9 Feb 2023, 10:42 PM

A joint survey conducted by Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme or CDMP and Japan International Cooperation Agency or JICA back in 2009 revealed that at least 72000 buildings in Dhaka city would completely collapse and more than 135,000 buildings would be damaged if an earthquake of magnitude seven or more hit Dhaka.

Fourteen years have gone by since the release of the data, the number of buildings in Dhaka has grown substantially.

The recent 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated a large swathe of areas in the Levant region, mainly in Syria and Turkey, and killed hundreds of thousands of people and counting, have brought the question of preparedness for Dhaka in case of a significant tremor forward again.

Academics, experts and stakeholders interviewed for this article do not believe any progress has been made regarding preparedness to minimise the scale of damage during an earthquake since the report's release.

According to them, Dhaka is under serious risk due to unplanned urbanisation and buildings constructed without following the earthquake preparedness code. 

Experts have long been raising the alarm and painting a dark picture of how Dhaka will look in catastrophes of such biblical proportions, but they have little to say about what can be done to minimise the risks.

POSSIBLE EPICENTRES OF EARTHQUAKES IN BANGLADESH

Dr Syed Humayun Akhter, former professor of geology at Dhaka University and the incumbent vice-chancellor at Bangladesh Open University, pinpointed two possible epicentres of a major shake in Bangladesh.

The first one is the infamous Dauki Fault, which stretches from Sunamganj to Jaflong areas in the Sylhet region.

The other is the so-called Subduction Zone, which stretches from hilly parts of Sylhet to Cox’s Bazar.

“No major earthquake shook both areas for a long time, resulting in force condensing near the fault plates. A major earthquake at least to 8.2-magnitude may shake the area anytime now as the India Plate [tectonic plate] is being thrust under the Burma Plate,” he said.

“An earthquake is imminent today, tomorrow or 50 years later.”

Prof Humayun also pointed out that the capital Dhaka, some major gas extraction fields and large industrial complexes are located quite closely near the faults, which raised the risk level quite significantly.

“In short, whatever element can increase the risk level in Dhaka during an earthquake is present nearby the possible epicentres.”

He also warned that Dhaka city’s unplanned urbanisation would cause “a humanitarian disaster”.

“At least 66 percent of total buildings in Dhaka weren’t built following earthquake preparedness codes. The unplanned urbanisation situation can’t be course-corrected overnight. That’s why I don’t see a way to minimise risk.”

In short, whatever element can increase the risk level in Dhaka during an earthquake is present nearby the possible epicentres.
Dr Syed Humayun Akhter, former professor of geology at Dhaka University

DANGERS OF NOT FOLLOWING TREMOR PREPAREDNESS CODE  

A report by the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in 2018 indicated that at least 66.1 percent of buildings under the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha or RAJUK’s jurisdiction failed to comply with the codes for earthquake preparedness set by the authorities.

Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, a teacher of BUET’s civil engineering department, believes this fact alone will play against us if a major tremor hits Dhaka.

“Look at Turkey, the buildings that collapsed had issues with reinforcement. The situation in Dhaka is direr as most buildings were completed by not following building code.”

He believes the preparedness for an earthquake is not in people as well as the government’s priority list as the region had not been hit by a major earthquake since 1870.

“Casualty numbers in a tremor-hit area increase when buildings collapse. The chances of more people getting killed in Dhaka is pretty high as the population is so dense in the city, and building reinforcement is not that strong.”

WHICH BUILDINGS ARE AT RISK?

RAJUK’s Town Planner, Md Ashraful Islam, said the buildings that have already been marked as risky and constructed with bricks alone would surely collapse if an earthquake hits Dhaka. 

He also issued warnings about the buildings which were built on top of water bodies, the land of which was artificially prepared by sand.

“The soil underneath the buildings in such areas are not solid, and in case of a tremor, the bottom floors of the buildings may go down due to ‘soil liquefaction effect’,” he said.

The town planner also stressed the importance for RAJUK to adopt the method of scrutinising structural plans of buildings instead of the current method of scrutinising architectural plans.

“Nobody is monitoring whether the architectural plan is being followed nor do they check weather the combination of building construction elements prescribed by the architect is being followed. It's high time for RAJUK to change the practice and introduce the method of scrutinising structural plans of buildings.”

Dr Adil Mohammed Khan, a faculty member at the Urban and Regional Planning department of Jahangirnagar University, said the absorption level of tremors of buildings determines the number of casualties in a city, and Dhaka’s urban construction situation portrays a grim picture to him.

“Bosila, Bashundhara Residential Area, Aftabnagar, Banasree- these areas in Dhaka were built by filling up water bodies with sand, which doubled the vulnerability. Then again, older parts of the city have better quality soil, but the infrastructure of buildings is quite poor. However, the buildings in Dhanmondi, Banani, Gulshan are in a better shape, infrastructure-wise, and the soil is quite solid there as well.”

Casualty numbers in a tremor-hit area increase when buildings collapse. The chances of more people getting killed in Dhaka is pretty high as the population is so dense in the city, and building reinforcement is not that strong.
Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, a teacher of BUET’s civil engineering department

TRAPPED IN NARROW STREETS

The Detailed Area Plan or DAP 2022 shows 90 percent of the streets in Dhaka are narrower than 20 feet.

These streets have put places like Old Dhaka at risk of disaster if a big quake like the ones in Turkey and Syria hits the city, Fire Service and Civil Defence Director General Md Main Uddin said at a press conference on Wednesday.

The emergency responders in Bangladesh are well trained and have modern equipment for rescue operations, but reaching places like Old Dhaka will be challenging, he said.

“Another thing we need to keep in mind is that we have an underground system for sewage and gas connections along with overhead electricity lines. What’ll happen when there is an earthquake?”

“Will today’s utility systems be a threat to our lives tomorrow?”

Speaking to bdnews24.com, Lt Col Md Tajul Islam, a director of the fire service, has the same concerns as Main Uddin.

“We can’t use all the equipment we have only because of narrow streets during an emergency. It’ll be the same in case of an earthquake.”

Tajul said 70 percent of the streets in Old Dhaka and other unplanned areas are so narrow that rescuers will not be able to reach there.

He said they examine if some safety requirements are included in a building’s design. After the building is constructed, most of these things are found neglected.

“The owners do not follow the rules. This is why we consider these buildings vulnerable. We don’t have an exact account, but 60-70 of the buildings are vulnerable.”
[Writing in English and infographic created by Adil Mahmood]