22 days ago

A governance analysis of Dhaka's earthquake unpreparedness

Dhaka city is at a risk of earthquake as most of its buildings would collapse if a major earthquake strikes the densely-populated megacity.
Dhaka city is at a risk of earthquake as most of its buildings would collapse if a major earthquake strikes the densely-populated megacity. Photo : FE/FIles

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A 4.9 magnitude earthquake at 10 km depth that originated in Dohar Upazila, struck Dhaka on May 5, 2023. It occurred at around six in the morning when the city was asleep, and there was very little earthquake preparedness. Fortunately, this was not a big earthquake, but it is indeed a wake-up call for us to take earthquake preparedness seriously.

It is seemingly the case that Dhaka is not taking earthquakes "seriously". The nature of an earthquake as a disaster is that it can happen anytime, anywhere-- given that Dhaka's location is quite sensitive on the seismic plates. Therefore, Dhaka is essentially on a ticking time bomb, and must take immediate measures to prepare.

EARTHQUAKE GOVERNANCE IN DHAKA: Tracing back 105 years, in 1918, at Sreemangal, a 7.5 Richter scale major earthquake was recorded in Bangladesh. Going back 104 years, 115.8 km away from Dhaka, at Kishoreganj, the most high-scale recorded earthquake took place at 15 km depth and 7.2 Richter scale. Although Dhaka has yet to experience a disastrous earthquake similar to that, the city's preparation is still a critical concern because it is in an earthquake-prone area.

Unfortunately, there is no up-to-date earthquake preparedness strategy for the city, and despite having buildings and infrastructure codes in policy now, these are not being followed meaning many buildings made in the past not following guidelines still stand tall. These buildings are more prone to earthquake damage because the standard of construction and the materials used need to be appropriately monitored. The city needs a coordinated response strategy for earthquakes or other natural catastrophes. In the recent earthquake, city dwellers were in a state of panic mode because they did not know what to do. Moreover, since there is an absence of skilled workers and equipment that would be needed in an emergency, they were puzzled by the situation.

EMERGENCY RESPONSE IN DHAKA: The need for citizen awareness in Dhaka's earthquake governance is the topmost problem. Since many people did not know what to do in an earthquake, they felt unprotected and unprepared in the recent occurance. For instance, many of them needed clarification on whether they should leave the building, or stay inside. They were in a fix whether to use the lift or not. Some thought they should go to an open space, while others thought staying inside was safer. But even for those who thought to stay inside, they did not have the preparedness of going under a safe table, or to have an emergency kit (mineral water, energy biscuit, dry foods, medicine, torch or flashlight etcetera) with themselves. Those who went outside did not know where to go in the absence of any demarcated space to take shelter in such emergencies.  All of these are due to lack of proper drills on earthquake preparedness to build informed awareness among the citizens.

Further, earthquakes need to be understood as a compound disaster because they might trigger other tragedies, including but not limited to fire, gas leakage, electric line outage, nuclear disaster, tsunami etcetera. Given this, the planning to prepare for earthquakes needs to be done in a holistic way that deals with other potential disasters.

DEVELOPING A COMPREHENSIVE EARTHQUAKE PREPAREDNESS PLAN: With the participation of all parties, including government agencies, civil society organisations, and corporate sector representatives, a thorough earthquake preparedness strategy should be urgently created for Dhaka. City's high-risk zones should be identified in the plan, along with standards for the construction, maintenance of buildings and infrastructure, as well as procedures for emergency response, communication, and evacuation.

Added protections for vulnerable groups like the elderly, children, and those with disabilities should be included in the plan. In order to do this, it may be necessary to designate safe locations for these groups to congregate in the event of an earthquake and to train staff to aid and support them.

ENSURING COMPLIANCE AND RAISING AWARENESS: The city must invest in a thorough monitoring and enforcement system to guarantee adherence to building rules. This might entail the establishment of a special division within the local government tasked with keeping an eye on the quality of building materials and construction. Owners of buildings should be responsible for any violations of building codes, and punitive measures including fines and other sanctions should be in place for offenders. Programmes should be funded to build skills of engineers and architects in constructing earthquake-resistant buildings to ensure that every new building in the city is made to withstand earthquakes. Similarly, money should be spent on staff training and equipment purchases to strengthen emergency services to respond to earthquakes and other natural catastrophes.

The city should also invest in communication infrastructure, including an earthquake early warning system. Regular practice drills and exercises must be arranged to evaluate how well the emergency response procedures work. Further, public education programmes should be funded adequately to increase awareness among its residents. This can entail producing educational materials explaining earthquake preparedness and safety, by means of as pamphlets and movies. To identify and address specific issues about earthquake preparedness, the city should interact with the local community. For instance, in heavily populated city regions, the emphasis can be on locating secure locations where people can seek refuge in an earthquake. Making sure that inexpensive, earthquake-resistant housing is available may be the main priority in locations with a high concentration of low-income individuals.

LESSONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD: Lessons learned from experiences around the globe highlight the value of investing in earthquake resilience measures. Japan, a nation susceptible to earthquakes, has successfully put in place early warning systems, construction rules, earthquake preparedness plans, and training for emergency responders. One important lesson from Tokyo that other susceptible cities like Dhaka should take is the value of spending money on earthquake-resistant building materials and methods to reduce damage and casualties. Even in 2011, when a 9.1 Richter scale earthquake hit Tokyo, almost no buildings collapsed. In contrast, during a big earthquake, Haiti's lack of emergency services, inadequate  response systems and poor coordination among various authorities resulted in a disjointed and ineffective response. This demonstrates the necessity of funding emergency services and response systems to prepare for such natural calamities.

A sophisticated early warning system has been built in California, USA to offer crucial seconds of notice before an earthquake strikes. This system employs a network of seismic sensors to identify earthquakes and notify individuals via a variety of channels including mobile network, TV, and radio channel so people can take necessary measures. Similarly, the comprehensive framework for earthquake resilience developed in New Zealand highlights the significance of coordinated and cooperative actions across public and private sector institutions and local communities. This strategy combines non-regulatory actions like public awareness campaigns and community involvement with regulatory ones like building rules and land use planning.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Establishing thorough earthquake preparedness plans, enforcing building rules, educating emergency responders, and investing in communication infrastructure are all measures of earthquake resilience that must be taken seriously. Dhaka may take the required measures to ensure that it is appropriately prepared for earthquakes and other natural disasters by learning from the best practices of cities such as Tokyo and California, and the worst practices of cities such as Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

In conclusion, creating a thorough earthquake preparedness plan, guaranteeing adherence to construction rules, funding emergency services, and increasing citizen knowledge are essential to enhancing Dhaka's seismic resilience.


Dr Shanawez Hossain is an Assistant Professor at the Global Studies and Governance (GSG) department at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). [email protected].

Ahmad Tousif Jami is a Research Assistant and Student at GSG, IUB. [email protected].


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