Collapsed factory is a sign of Bangladesh’s tremendous earthquake vulnerability
Buildings should not collapse spontaneously! On April 24th 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed within the Greater Dhaka Area in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 people and injuring another 2,500. This has brought a lot of attention to the working conditions of garment factory workers in Bangladesh and around the world, and the responsibility of retailers to promote safe working conditions in outsourced factories. Part of this story is also how factory managers allowed (in fact required!) workers to enter a building that had already shown signs of imminent collapse through significant cracking of the columns. This important story* also highlights the extreme vulnerability (built of concrete and steel), which people in Bangladesh live in every day.
Eight-story concrete frame buildings should not collapse spontaneously! This brings me dread when I think about the seismicity of Bangladesh. Had there been even a moderate earthquake on one of the many faults in proximity of Dhaka, the Rana Plaza would have without a doubt collapsed, along with thousands of other buildings. In fact a recent survey conducted by the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology found that three-fifth of garment factories are vulnerable to collapse. It is unclear what constitutes a threshold for “vulnerable” and what would trigger such collapse (presumably collapse could be spontaneous). But there is little reason to think that garment factories are uniquely vulnerable among buildings in Bangladesh. Residential and commercial buildings are probably no less vulnerable.
Bangladesh has a long history of earthquakes. In 1762, a major earthquake caused the submergence of 150 square kilometers of land, and killed 500 people in Dhaka, then only a small town. Between 1850 and 1950, there have been another 7 significant earthquake in the region, ranging in magnitude from 7.0 to 8.7 on the Richter scale.
Since the last significant earthquake, Bangladesh has changed quite significantly. The Greater Dhaka Area has a population of over 11 millions. A 2009 study conducted by the Government predicted over 120,000 casualties in Dhaka due to a 7.5M earthquake. Based on the HAZUS methodology, the risk analysis has significant uncertainty, and this number could easily be much, much larger.
Unfortunately, it usually takes an earthquake disaster to shift the politics of seismic risk, through the catastrophic demonstration of the extreme vulnerability of buildings. In Dhaka however, this demonstration has already occurred through the spontaneous collapse of a modern 8-storey building and the death of 1,100 people. Could this catalyze a shift in the politics of risk and promotion of earthquake resilience in Bangladesh?
I am not an expert on the earthquake risk in Bangladesh, nor about the resilience of Dhaka. But I would love to know more. In particular, I would be very interested to know more about the local projects, researchers and practitioners working to promote resilience of Bangladesh and its cities. Send us a comment or email!
*The story of the garment factory collapse is also one of disempowerment and abuse, in a world connected through the products we buy, but blind to the people behind them. I wanted here to highlight a simpler story about the earthquake vulnerability of Bangladesh, without going too deeply into the politics of poverty and power, while acknowledging that these are very much related to issues of vulnerability. For that I refer you to Professor Ananya Roy, a brilliant professor from UC Berkeley, who does extensive work on the politics of poverty and our relation to it.