Monday, 14 May 2012

Alex Stubbings: On the Ground in Dhaka, September 18th 2011.

Alex Stubbings, GfGD Blog Climate Change Correspondent, writes...

During September to December 2011 I was fortunate enough to undertake an internship in Bangladesh, at the same time North India/Nepal was hit by a powerful earthquake. Naturally, what does Bangladesh have to do with earthquakes? Surprisingly quite a lot.

On September 18th 2011 there was a powerful Earthquake, M 6.9, in Nepal/ NE India, the so-called Sikkim Earthquake. Here’s a link to the Dhaka, English, broadsheet that should paint a richer picture of events on the ground in the region.

Drawing on my own anecdotal experience of the event I want to talk about earthquakes in this highly vulnerable area.

I've never been anywhere before that experiences earthquakes greater than M5.0, so this was new for me. Nevertheless, as I was walking around Dhaka on that day I had no idea that this earthquake had struck. The only tell-tale signs that one had were the masses of people pouring onto the streets of Gulshan Avenue, in the heart of one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Dhaka.

Shopping Centre, Dhaka (Source)
Gulshan Avenue is comprised of many tower blocks, some over 20 storeys high. When I saw the people on the streets I still had no idea that an earthquake had struck several hundred kilometres away. However, within ten minutes I received a text from a friend asking if I was OK. That’s when I found out what had happened.

Bangladesh Mega-Delta
 See here for licence details

As this video shows Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, due in part to the Himalayan uplift and being situated on unconsolidated sediment. The situation is made far worse for Bangladesh because it is one of the world’s largest mega-deltas, something which has only just started to register with me. The fact that liquefaction [when stable saturated sediment becomes unstable and begins to flow] can occur quite easily in unconsolidated sediments makes the vulnerability of this Less Developed Country (LDC) all the more pressing. Clearly policy makers need to make better contingencies for this. This will therefore necessitate improved disaster risk reduction practices across the spectrum of policy-society. These pictures, again from the Daily Star, document some of the destruction wrought by the earthquake in Nepal. What would concern me, as a geoscientist in the region or as a policy maker, is that these scenes could quite literally be repeated in Dhaka, and elsewhere in Bangladesh.

A good question to ask is why? Simply put, this is down to the old adage “earthquakes don’t kill people buildings do”. Unfortunately, as this article demonstrates this is quite literally the case in Bangladesh, but also in other countries too. Fortunately though I’ve not heard of any buildings collapsing yet, and hopefully they won’t. Nevertheless, until planning regulations are tightened up, uncontrolled urbanisation is curbed and appropriate building codes applied to make infrastructure more resilient, or earthquake proof, there is always the possibility that the worst case scenario could occur, which would be a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.

Therefore, as geologists, and as a community we really need to engage with NGOs, CBOs (community based organisations) and INGOs (international non-governmental organisations), and assist them in formulating sufficiently robust, flexible and fair policy documents that can be scrutinised or presented to cabinets, or appropriate governmental ministers. Mobilising our intellectual capital and working with a local NGO, is indeed a project we here at GfGD are all capable of and could undertake!