From Nimtoli to Rana Plaza to now Chawkbazar, our inability to prioritize safety continues to haunt us
On the holiday morning on February 21, 2019, people woke up to news that at almost 70 people had been reported dead, and many others injured with severe burns, from the deadly fire in a shabby alleyway in Chawkbazar.
According to reports, there are more than 25,000 chemical warehouses in Old Dhaka, of which around 15,000 are in residential buildings. Fire service officials said only around 2% of all storehouses have permission from city corporations.
Reminding Old Dhaka residents, as well as the nation, of the June 2010 fire tragedy at Nimtoli that killed 124 people, the Chawkbazar incident has become the second-worst such disaster in our country’s history. Similarly, we can recall the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster that claimed the lives of more than a thousand people.
It is expected that this latest disaster would bring up lots of questions in people’s minds. What could have been done to avoid such a massive loss of life and property? Has the government done the bare minimum? Why do such accidents happen over and over again?
It is predicted that Dhaka — one of the most populous megacities in the world — will face a series of disasters in the coming years caused by its rapid, unplanned urbanization and lack of good governance.
According to multiple sources, the city will become the fifth largest city by 2030 in terms of population. Dhaka is also at high risk due to earthquakes, being the most vulnerable among the 20 most vulnerable cities in the world.
After Chawkbazar, government authorities have once again promised that the chemical factories and warehouses would be relocated to Keraniganj at any cost. A similar promise was also made after the Nimtoli tragedy. But it is yet to procure land to set up a chemical warehouse zone.
After the Nimtoli tragedy, a government probe committee had made a 17-point recommendation. It suggested shifting warehouses to non-residential areas, enforcing certain laws, installing separate hydrant points in the city’s different areas, forming a cross-functional license-issuing body, and updating school and college textbooks to raise awareness at an early age.
Practically none of these have seen further development or implementation.
A number of government agencies are responsible of overseeing and enforcing the building and fire safety codes, but have failed to inspect and monitor illegal establishments. In the case of “Waheed Mansion,” basic fire measures were completely missing.
The government has undertaken a number of initiatives to minimize the loss and damage caused by disasters, which includes preparing earthquake risk maps of Dhaka, Chittagong, and Sylhet city corporations, updating the Standing Orders on Disaster in 2010 to identify the duties and responsibilities of the relevant ministries, departments, and agencies to reduce disaster risk and damage.
The authorities concerned are also going to formulate contingency plans for emergency response agencies like Fire Service and Civil Defence, Armed Forces Division, Department of Disaster Management, and Cyclone Preparedness Program to address post-disaster situations.
Back in 2011, the government launched an initiative to build an emergency force of 62,000 community volunteers across the country to carry out rescue operations immediately after any disaster. The government has also procured equipment to carry out rescue operation immediately after disasters.
Despite all these initiatives, the government’s preparedness is far too inadequate due to a lack of implementation. Many risk factors, like unplanned urbanization, remain. People lack proper knowledge about fires and have little idea about what they have to do during one.
Despite 62,000 community volunteers carrying out rescue operations immediately after urban hazards, in the eight years since announcing the scheme, they have barely trained half of them, and there are no initiatives to refresh and extend the scheme beyond the current capacity.
So the question remains: How prepared is the government in facing the worst-case scenarios following a disaster such as the fire in Chawkbazar?
In response, there are a few measures the government can employ:
• Involving various ministries and NGOs, a coordinated mechanism should be developed so that special guidelines could be prepared and disseminated, and extensive mass awareness programs launched. The awareness programs must span all strata of society including citizens, government officials, municipality officials, politicians, engineers, architects, designers, builders, and medical professionals
• The government must enforce the Building Construction Act, the Building Construction Regulation, and the Bangladesh National Building Code in setting up new structures. They must also stress the need for formulating new policies while making sure of implementation, which could minimize casualties and overall damage
• We must also increase the capacity of emergency response agencies in terms of skills and equipment, along with proper budgetary allocation. Fire service units lack the necessary equipment to respond to fires in areas such as Chawkbazar
• Increase disaster preparedness and awareness capacity of the communities, where the media can play an important role
• The storage of chemicals and other industrial material in residential areas must be ceased. The government should investigate into the matter of why the process of shifting the chemical industry continues to be stalled, and should ensure the correct measures and appropriate punitive actions
We can never fully anticipate such accidents — but preparedness, awareness, and proper governance can significantly contribute towards reducing the loss of life and property.
Mohammed Norul Alam Raju is Technical Program Director, World Vision Bangladesh.
Source: Dhaka Tribune