What has changed since Rana Plaza?
On April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-storied commercial building, collapsed in Savar. On May 13, 21 days after the incident, the search for the dead ended with the death toll of 1,134. Approximately 2,515 injured people were rescued from the building. It is considered to be the deadliest garment-factory accident in history.
According to the BGMEA, at the time of the collapse, five garment factories were in operation in the Rana Plaza building. A total of 2,760 workers were deployed in five factories of the building, while the numbers are 3,900 as per reports by other sources. This year marks six years of the Rana Plaza disaster.
Curious minds want to know what steps Bangladesh has taken to avoid such disasters.
Worker safety left hanging
The reaction to Rana Plaza forced brands and retailers to act. About 250 companies signed two initiatives -- the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the less constraining Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Both were designed to improve the safety of 2,300 factories supplying Western brands. Both completed their terms last year. But in addressing fire safety, building safety, worker protection, and preparedness for massive collapse, has any practical discussion taken place?
The issue of minimum wage for garment workers has come into the discussion. The minimum monthly wage for garment workers has increased to $68, though it is still very poor compared to $280 in mainland China. Facing the threat of being cut off by Western buyers, thousands of factory owners have invested in fire doors, sprinkler systems, electrical upgrades, and stronger foundations. Major life-threatening concerns remain outstanding in too many factories, and need to be updated.
Why the building collapsed
After the Rana Plaza collapse, a former chief engineer of RAJUK said the owner had not received proper clearance for the building, and that an extra three floors were added illegally.
The other reasons for the collapse include conversion of the building from commercial use to industrial use, where heavy machineries were placed on upper floors. The use of sub-standard construction material, which lead to an overload of the building structure, was also a factor.
We remain vulnerable
If a single building collapse can kill over a thousand people, there is much to worry about.
What will happen if a moderate earthquake hits the country, causing thousands of buildings to collapse? How long will the government take to finish their search and rescue operation with this minimum preparation? Not to mention, we do not have enough rescue equipment at our disposal.
Earthquakes on the horizon
Although Bangladesh has not experienced a major earthquake in over a century, recently an escalation in seismic activity has been observed. Dhaka is more vulnerable to earthquakes due to its geological location.
According to a major study, over 70,000 buildings will be destroyed completely if an earthquake of over 6.0 magnitude shakes Dhaka while the numbers will go up to 238,164 across the country in case of an 8.5 magnitude tremor.
There would be an economic loss of about Tk8,580 crore resulting from only structural damage in case of a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. Some 30 million tons of debris, equal to 2,880,000 truckloads (25 tons per truck), will be generated.
Considering the vulnerability, the government’s preparedness is far too inadequate to address its aftermath. People have no proper knowledge about tremors, and citizens have no idea what they have to do during one.
Back in 2012, the government decided to build 62,000 community volunteers to carry out rescue operations immediately after a disaster, but in seven years since the announcement, they could merely train a fraction -- 30,000 -- of the intended amount.
Inefficiency and lack of coordination among the different government bodies and NGOs are also considered as big challenges. Debris management will become a serious challenge if a tremor hits.
More to do
So the question remains -- how prepared is the government to face possible worst-case scenarios following a disaster? Involving different ministries and NGOs, a coordination mechanism should be developed so that special guidelines can be prepared and disseminated. Mass awareness programs must span all strata of society, including city dwellers, government officials, municipality officials, politicians, engineers, architects, designers, builders, and medical people.
The government must enforce the Building Construction Act and the Building Construction Regulation in setting up new structures, and stress the need for formulating policy.
Through the implementation of the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC), casualties and the overall damage can be minimized. Initiatives should be taken to demolish old and highly risky buildings as a first step towards minimizing casualties in such natural disasters, followed by their retrofitting to make the vulnerable buildings earthquake-tolerant. Implementation of safety plans for garment factories needs to continue.
Ultimately preparedness, awareness, and good governance can go a long way in preventing the loss of life and property.
Mohammed Norul Alam Raju is the Program Director, Policy and Advocacy, World Vision Bangladesh.