After the fire broke out at Nanda Kumar Lane in Chawkbazar's Churihatta area in Dhaka around 10:35pm on February 20, a total of 39 fire-fighting units from 13 stations along with locals fought the flames throughout the night and managed to douse it after long 12 hours of efforts.
According to Fire Service and Civil Defence officials, the fire spread to several adjacent buildings in minutes as most of these housed warehouses of plastic materials, chemical compounds, and perfume and body spray. All of these materials are highly flammable making it difficult for the fire-fighters to extinguish the flames quickly.
The Chawkbazar incident reminded residents of Old Dhaka and the entire nation about the Nimtoli tragedy of June 2010 when 124 people had died due to a blaze. Similarly, we can recall the building collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar in 2013 that caused the death of 1,134 people and crippled many others for life.
After Chawkbazar, the government authorities have once again promised that the chemical factories and warehouses would be relocated from Old Dhaka to Keraniganj at any cost to ensure safety of the people. A similar promise was also given after the Nimtoli tragedy. Immediately after the Nimtoli tragedy, a government probe committee had made a 17-point recommendation. It suggested shifting warehouses of inflammable chemicals to non-residential areas, enforcing Fire Prevention and Extinguishing Rules 2003 and Bangladesh National Building Code, installing separate hydrant points in the city's different areas, forming a cross-functional licence issuing body and updating school and college textbooks to raise awareness about disaster management from an early age. But land procurement to set up a chemical warehouse zone has not been completed nine years after the tragic incident.
In case of the most recent incident, it seems that the relevant government agencies have failed to inspect and monitor the buildings from where the fire spread. The Waheed Mansion building lacked the basic fire-fighting measures. It also did not have the permission for chemical warehouses on its various floors.
Over the past few years, the government has taken many steps to address manmade and natural disasters in the country and to minimise the loss and damage caused by any such disaster.
Although the government took significant initiatives, the preparedness of government departments and citizens are still far too inadequate to address the disaster aftermath situation due to lack of implementation of most measures. Many risk factors like unplanned urbanisation remains. People lack proper knowledge and training about how to react immediately after a massive fire incident and citizens have no idea what they have to do during one. Eight years after the government decided to create a force of 62,000 community volunteers to carry out rescue operations immediately after urban hazards, half of these volunteers still lack training. There are no initiatives to update and extend their capacities.
On the other hand, inefficiency and lack of coordination among the different government bodies and non-government organisations is also considered a big challenge. Debris management will become a serious challenge if tremor hits. A single building collapse (Rana Plaza) generated about 7,000 tonnes of debris and it took nearly 21 days to complete the rescue operation.
So the question remains - how prepared are we to face possible worst-case scenarios following a disaster, such as the fire incident in Chawkbazar?
Involving different ministries and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), a coordination mechanism should be developed so that special guidelines can be prepared and disseminated. Extensive mass awareness programmes need to be launched. The awareness programmes must span all strata of society including city-dwellers, government officials, municipality officials, politicians, engineers, architects, designers, builders and medical people.
The government must also enforce the Building Construction Act and the Building Construction Regulation in setting up new structures and stress the need for formulating a policy and nominate an authority to implement the Building Construction Regulation. Through the implementation of Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC), casualties and the overall damage can be minimised.
Initiatives should be taken to demolish old and highly risky buildings as a first step towards minimising casualties in natural disasters, followed by their retrofitting to make vulnerable buildings earthquake-tolerant.
Increasing the capacity of emergency response agencies in skills and equipment as well as their structure, responsibilities and coordination mechanism along with proper-regular financial allocation will also be helpful. Fire Service units lack narrow-road friendly equipment to response to hazards. Government can emphasise on greater involvement of public and private sectors to implement Disaster Risk Reduction measures.
The media can play an important role alongside other stakeholders to increase disaster preparedness and awareness capacity of communities.
Most importantly, the storage of chemicals and other industrial materials in residential areas need to be stopped. The government should investigate into the matter why the chemical industry shifting process has been stalled since 2010.
Only better preparedness, awareness and good governance can help decrease the loss of lives, injuries and loss of property in Dhaka in the near future.
Mohammed Norul Alam Raju is
Technical Program Director at
World Vision Bangladesh.
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