An earthquake is a sudden, quick quaking of the ground triggered by the breaking and shifting of rock beneath the Earth's surface. Earthquakes can take place at any time of the year. This shaking can cause damage to infrastructures; disrupt gas, electric, and phone services; and sometimes trigger landslides, avalanches, flash floods, fires, and huge, destructive ocean waves (tsunamis).
A large number of people (an estimated 50 million people) are at risk of facing Himalayan quakes in the area, many of them residing in densely populated cities of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bangladesh has a long history of seismic activity related to its proximity to the Himalayas. Three great earthquakes of magnitudes exceeding 8 were felt in 1897, 1934, and 1950, and another four earthquakes exceeding magnitude 7 were felt between 1869 and 1950.
A huge earthquake occurred in 1762 along the Burma Arc plate boundary. It caused a local tsunami in the Bay of Bengal and caused at least 200 deaths.
In 1897, a large earthquake pushed up the northern edge of the Shillong Plateau. About 200km away, the ground under Dhaka 'liquefied.'
Even though Bangladesh has not faced large earthquakes since the 1918 Srimangal shake, it has experienced around 116 seismic turbulences since January 2007, and each time the epicentre was in the country. This is noticeable and is a reminder of the seismic risks in Bangladesh.
It is acknowledged by almost all concerned that the earthquake risk reduction measures of Bangladesh and its people is not up to the mark and it needs to be improved immediately. Major cities in Bangladesh are ill-prepared for earthquakes due to lack of cognizance and unplanned urbanization. The earthquake disaster risk index has placed Dhaka among the 20 most vulnerable cities in the world. Heavy density of building and inhabitants - especially in old part of the city, poor constructions and materials, poor utility services, narrow lanes, shortage of evacuation spaces are the danger factors of the city, related to earthquake risks.
Disregard for the national building code by the builders and related actors and no/lack of necessary enforcement has left cities at risk with various vulnerabilities.
When an earthquake occurs in a densely populated area, it may cause deaths and injuries as well as extensive stuff damage. Most earthquake-related injuries result from collapsing walls or floors, flying glass, and falling objects as a result of the ground shaking or people trying to move more than a few feet during the shaking.
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 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.
Taking into account the current capacity, risk and vulnerability of Bangladesh to earthquake, the following steps and measures could be undertaken by the relevant organizations/actors /authorities/duty bearers in improving further the emergency and earthquake risk reduction performances.
Preparedness for a Rapid Response encompasses those measures taken before a disaster event which are aimed at minimizing loss of life, interference of critical services, and harm when the disaster occurs. It includes the formulation of workable earthquake specific emergency plans, the maintenance of inventories and the training of workforce. It may also grip search and rescue measures as well as evacuation plans for communities at risk.
Prior to any emergency situation, the contingency plan provides the basis for identifying and further developing response capacity. The Contingency Plan is the basis of readiness and covers 1) analysis of the context, risk mapping and identification of likely emergency scenarios, 2) mapping of capacity, vulnerabilities, constraint and resources, tangible/intangible assets, and 3) identification of other external organizations' capacity, constraint and resources in the department/ministry/area/country.
Reduction of earthquake risks
It could be said that disaster-prone Bangladesh, which has been facing floods and cyclones efficaciously in the recent past, is not equally ready to tackle earthquakes. It is expected that responsible authorities will act appropriately for reducing the risks in line with the Disaster Management Vision of the government of Bangladesh. The vision is to reduce the risk of people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged, from the effects of natural, environmental and human induced hazards, to a manageable and acceptable humanitarian level, and to have in place an efficient emergency response system capable of handling large scale disasters. The major areas of interventions for reducing earthquake risk could be:
1) Integration of Earthquake Risk Reduction in existing development works and future initiatives of different government departments and non-government organizations (NGOs) of the country is very much important. The government authorities and NGOs need to redesign their earthquake risk reduction programme to ensure that they maximize disaster mitigation potential and incorporate appropriate structural and non-structural measures which are fit technically, environmentally, culturally and economically.
2) People should be encouraged and supported both financially and technically by the relevant authorities to build infrastructures considering the risk of earthquakes. It is important to develop culture of earthquake resilience through promoting mitigation measures and raising awareness of all actors including communities at risk. Sensitizing key actors for earthquake resistant infrastructures through promoting and practicing Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) is vital in improving earthquake risk management in Bangladesh.
3) Infrastructures, particularly electric polls and bill boards, should be properly installed, monitored and maintained. It is urgently needed to retrofit public buildings, such as hospitals, schools, offices, staff quarters etc, to strengthen them against quakes. Masons and builders should be trained by relevant authority with a follow up and monitoring mechanism.
4) Earthquake preparedness through regular drills and simulation exercise should be organised by local government, particularly in most vulnerable locations, with the support of relevant duty bearers. Encourage people not to panic and be smart in taking suggested safety measures during earthquake.
5) The respective authorities at different levels should strengthen capacity building initiatives of local government and communities at risk. A well organized and coordinated effort is needed to further strengthening local level planning, implementing decision making process and the allocation of resource to local government for earthquake proof housing programme in the vulnerable location. Proper resources from central government and others should be ensured by authorities and policy makers.
6) In forecasting earthquake, there is very long way to go. Some developed countries are trying to find out forecasting system though it is difficult, expensive and involves high technology. A process should be started for having latest technical support and cooperation from abroad in line with Global Disaster Risk Reduction System and framework in this regard.
Well-designed and people cantered initiatives from relevant authorities, duty bearers and civil society organizations are very much essential for the betterment of large number of people at risk. A comprehensive and coordinated approach focuses earthquake risk reduction and appropriate attention on emergency response management capacity is very much essential.
Farid Hasan Ahmed is a disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation expert, development lawyer and a fellow of EPFL, Switzerland