9 months ago

Countering man-made disasters

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Accidents at industrial units or factories can happen due to human errors and oversight or may have explanations involving factors at times beyond control. But when disaster strikes out of the blue at home or commercial establishments, people have reasons to be overly concerned and panicky. But in this age of advanced science and technology, it is foolish to be fatalistic instead of looking for the real cause behind such disasters.

It is exactly from this point of view the three blasts occurring within four days in Sitakunda, in Dhaka City's Science Laboratory area and in Fulbaria, which reduced the sites into debris like that of an earthquake need to be analysed. By no means can those be compared with the disaster at the Union Carbide India Ltd. pesticide plant in Bhopal, considered the world's worst industrial tragedy. The Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear meltdowns are even far greater man-made disasters, although their combined casualties are apparently fewer. But in terms of environmental damage and long-term radioactive impacts, the two nuclear accidents are unsurpassed yet. But this does in no way make the gravity of the three local disasters any less.

At home, the Nimtoli chemical warehouse fire on June 3, 2010, a similar inferno at Churihatta on February 20,2019 and yet another chemical warehouse disaster on a lower scale at Armanitola in April, 2021 expose the danger of unsafe storage facilities for chemicals in crowded urban locations. In the first two tragic incidents, 123 and 78 lives perished.

Now inflammable substances like chemicals ask for the highest possible safety measures for their storage and handling and those are at risk of triggering the worst disaster in and around the site of their location if handled inappropriately. People living in the area are aware of the danger. This is why the demand for their relocation at a place away from congested area is vociferous.

Well, the Sitakunda oxygen plant's is an industrial accident no matter how it came to happen. If the industrial unit's safety system is unreliable or its lax management/supervision or even human error is responsible for the blast that has reduced the plant into total wreckage, it cannot be ruled out altogether. Only more so, because refuelling of an inflammable gas like oxygen into cylinders demands appropriate technology and regular check-up of the system. Any defect or fault developed must not escape an in-built or extra system of vigilance. If there is still a risk of malfunction or mechanical failure, it is the way of machines and technology.

When it comes to residential accommodation with gas pipeline connection, there is still the danger of leaking gas. The presence of heavier gases in a confined space can cause blasts if those come into contact with a small spark or flame of a lighter or match stick. Gas cylinders now widely used in households' kitchens are increasingly causing blasts that more often than not end up taking lives ---at times of all the members of a family. The impression is that this is normal and bound to happen at a regular frequency. This should not be the case.

Even if gas lines and cylinders pose a threat and it is somewhat expected, what about commercial establishments where there is no such gas line connection or no use of gas cylinders? One explosion happened in a hotel opposite to Jonaki Cinema Hall and it was caused by accumulation of gas from sewerage lines, experts concluded. Before conducting a comprehensive probe, different agencies have ruled out any act of sabotage as their detectors did not smell any explosive in either of the spots of explosion that ripped apart floors of buildings in the latest incidents. Whether it is premature to say that accumulation of sewerage or Titas gas at the basement of Queen's Tower at Fulbaria caused the powerful explosion killing 19 people and injuring about a hundred others, about 20 of them grievously, only time will tell. The same is true for the Shirin Bhaban in Science Laboratory area because the presence of a concealed gas pipeline no longer in use and left plugged only to develop leak and release gas leading to the blast is as yet a hypothesis. It has to be established beyond doubt.    

Otherwise, people will feel nervous and even frightened to visit the shopping malls well decorated on the front side of mostly dilapidated buildings on the Elephant Road. Fulbaria's Siddique Bazar is also highly congested and arranged in a most unplanned manner possible. The problem lies with the chaotically constructed buildings with unsafe electric wiring.

In this connection, the lesson from garment factories can be illuminating. With help from and under supervision by the Alliance and Accord, garment factories were retrofitted after the Tazreen Fashions fire in 2012 and Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. No tragic fire in garment factories has been reported since such remedial action. Today, Bangladesh boasts 192 green factories---all but four in the garment sector ---to become the overwhelmingly global leader. To stay in business, garment factories which earn 85 per cent of foreign exchange had no other option.

The chemical warehouses had no such compulsion and inducement and therefore the shifting of those to their new location in Keraniganj is delayed for years. It is for the same reason, the construction of buildings in trading hubs is still haphazard after the disastrous fire at Gulistan's hawkers' market and trendy shopping malls are allowed in old and shabby buildings on Elephant Road. Substandard gas cylinders with no clear expiry date reach consumers. The faulty accommodations are cause and effect of the tragedy always waiting to happen. If garment factories can make a spectacular turnaround, so can the gas cylinder business and shopping arcades.   


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