Dhaka has witnessed a number of devastating fires in recent months
The violation of building codes and defiance of safety issues during the construction of high-rises have exposed around 18 million people in-and-around Dhaka to fire and earthquake, experts say.
Dhaka, one of the world's most densely-populated cities, has witnessed a number of devastating fires in recent months and years.
Urban experts say the recent fire incidents in Chawkbazar, Banani's FR Tower, and the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) kitchen market in Gulshan show how a lack of safety measures is putting people's lives at risk.
Construction and earthquake expert Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury, urban expert Prof Nazrul Islam, architect and urban planner Iqbal Habib, and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) Civil Engineering department Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansari attributed the rise in fire incidents to: unplanned urbanization, the violation of building codes, carelessness, an increased use of gas cylinders, and a lack of supervision by the authorities.
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They suggested taking immediate initiatives to ensure the safety compliance of city buildings like garment factories.
Seventy people were killed in the Chawkbazar fire in February while the fire at FR Tower claimed the lives of 26 people on March 28.
Government officials said the tower was constructed flouting the building code and that it had unusable firefighting equipment.
"It is not surprising," Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansari said adding: "Most high-rises in Dhaka lack necessary fire safety measures."
Prof Nazrul Islam said electric short-circuit, gas and other burners, cigarettes, gas cylinders, technological devices, and inflammable objects and chemicals usually trigger fires.
It is still unclear what sparked the fire at FR Tower.
A disaster in waiting
Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury, a construction and earthquake expert, said a large number of buildings in Dhaka flouted the building code and Building Construction Rule 1996 during construction, putting people's lives at risk.
"With so many vulnerable buildings in the capital, I fear that between 100,000 and 150,000 people may be killed if a strong earthquake hits Dhaka," he said.
Prof Choudhury also said the country still could not achieve good progress in earthquake preparedness.
Iqbal Habib said 80% of Dhaka's buildings lack proper approval according Rajdhani Unnyan Katripakkha (Rajuk).
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"Sixty percent of the other buildings were constructed breaching their designs and flouting the rules," he said.
Habib said most buildings have not been constructed and designed to withstand earthquakes.
Iqbal Habib added: "So, the people of the entire capital city are seriously vulnerable to earthquake. Most buildings and establishments have been constructed perilously in the absence of proper monitoring by the authorities concerned."
Buet Prof Ansari recalled that their 2011 survey on 53 high-rises in Dhaka city showed that 90% of them lacked adequate fire safety measures.
Rajuk—Dhaka's development authority—Chairman Md Abdur Rahman said they will conduct a drive within 15 days to identify faulty high-rise buildings.
The experts urged the government to strengthen its agencies concerned and form a committee that will specifically work to ensure fire safety.
"Government agencies, including Rajuk, need to be strengthened to stop the construction of risky buildings as well as retrofit or remove the old risky buildings," Prof Choudhury, the vice-chancellor of University of Asia Pacific, said.
He pointed out that pressure from foreign buyers after the Rana Plaza tragedy led to safety improvements at about 800 buildings housing factories.
"We need a body like Accord to ensure safety," Habib said.
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He said now most of the garment factories are safe and worker-friendly as the Accord and Alliance—two western buyers' platforms—created huge pressure on factory owners to ensure safety and compliance after the Rana Plaza tragedy that killed over 1,100 people in 2013.
Buet Prof Ansari said the government should assign a specific body to work on ensuring fire-safety in all high-rises.
He said: "More importantly, the building code, which clearly mentions how to construct a safe high-rise, should be followed strictly."
In the case of low-rises, he recommended keeping fire extinguishers on every floor and training people on their use in case of fire.
"We see many owners keep the main gates and the doors of the rooftop of their houses locked. In this case, the owners must provide each tenant with the keys of locks," he said.