Published in The Weekend Independent on 14 April 2011

The wave forms of the March 11 earthquake that hit Japan - recorded from Bangladesh

“People are very scared but don’t know what to do,” says seismic expert Humayun Akhter as he stares at his laptop screen.  The data on a series of graphs resemble abnormal heartbeats, but are in fact a digital representation of the devastating 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan on 11 March.  Humayun recorded the earthquake’s wave forms using a broadband seismometer at a seismic station in Dhaka – 5,000 kilometres away from its epicentre.

The hi-tech seismic equipment at Humayun’s disposal is undeniably powerful, but it cannot allay his concerns – or others — about the catastrophic impact an earthquake may have on Bangladesh.  Unlike other natural disasters, such as tornadoes or cyclones, the time and date of an earthquake cannot be predicted, and thus the damage inflicted on life and property comes as a particularly horrific trauma.

Humayun is a professor of geology at Dhaka University and has acted as the head of Dhaka University Earth Observatory (DUEO) since 2003, when it began working in conjunction with Columbia University.  After installing six GPS seismic stations as well as 14 seismographs, Humayun and his team have researching whether a particular area is very vulnerable to an earthquake, and what its likely magnitude may be.  But evacuations based on seismic data are impractical, as Humayun points out, “How long can people stay away from their homes?”  Therefore, the best and only alternative, he believes,  “is to teach people how to cope.”

However it seems that some sections of society are unwilling to listen.  Humayun said,  “Many people say that, unlike California and other such places, Bangladesh doesn’t have frequent earthquakes, and that an earthquake here would not exceed a great magnitude.  But I am the only seismologist working in Bangladesh with GPS, so I know this is incorrect.”  Furthermore, Bangladesh sits on 182 faults, 40 of which were identified by Humayun himself.  “Some are dormant while others are very active,” he explains.  Between 1869 and 1930, five earthquakes with a magnitude of seven or higher affected Bangladesh.  As the population back then was much smaller, the casualties were innumerably lower than what they would be today.

According to Humayun, “The next great earthquake is knocking at the door.”

Humayun Akhter at Madhupur seismic station

Despite the gravity of his prediction, Humayun is concerned that as a nation, Bangladesh is alarmingly under-prepared.  Although the government works in coordination with DUEO and has granted permission to install seismic stations on government property, DUEO’s data is not shared with the meteorology department.  The government itself has four seismic stations – but this is inadequate to provide nationwide coverage, and none of the stations are equipped with GPS technology.  Two years ago, Humayun offered to share DUEO’s data with the meteorology department, but although the offer was accepted, he is still waiting for it to be implemented.

This concerns Humayun greatly.  “It’s not possible for any government to handle this alone,” he said, “But our government is not prepared, which increases the risks.”

Humayun believes that the impact of an earthquake on the densely populated capital would be catastrophic.  “It will be worse than Haiti,” he said in a heavy tone.  The majority of Dhaka, and indeed the rest of the nation, lies on soft sediment, which amplifies ground motions during earthquakes.  He explained that prior to Bangladesh’s independence, most houses were no higher than three storeys.  As Dhaka’s population grew exponentially, landlords added additional storeys without building the necessary foundations.  He said, “Very fancy buildings were constructed on low-lying areas, without following building codes.”

In any event, Humayun said a national building code wasn’t developed until 1993 and it hasn’t been updated since.  “At that time there was very little data and knowledge of tectonics.”  Humayun believes that “none” of Dhaka’s buildings comply with the code, due to a lack of knowledge and concern by authorities.  “We are a poor nation.  We cannot change our buildings, not even in 10 years,” he said.

Obviously, the outlook is grim unless drastic measures are taken to minimise the loss of life and property.  Although the government has spent 59 crore on search and rescue equipment, Humayun stressed that self-help during earthquakes is essential.  “Do not expect an emergency team to rescue you,” he cautions, because “Bangladesh does not have the same quick response to earthquakes as Japan.”

Research Assistant Pritam Saha at Madhupur seismic station

Therefore, Humayun recommends that families and communities prepare for the possibility of an earthquake without delay.  His first piece of advice is to form an earthquake plan for your family.  Make sure everyone, including your children, can identify the safest places in your home, such as under chairs or tables, which will protect heads and chests from falling objects.  Cover your head and chest with pillows. Beams under doorways will also provide support, but be careful of being positioned close to glass windows and heavy objects that may fall.  As soon as any trembling occurs, switch off the gas in your kitchen immediately to prevent fires and turn off the main power switch to avoid short circuits and explosions.  Your family should also agree on a place to meet after the earthquake, such a local park, to establish who is missing.

It is also vital that each family members learns first-aid.  A first-aid kit should be contained in an earthquake bag that is stored in an accessible place in the home.  A detailed description of other items to include in an earthquake bag can be found in this earlier Independent article.  A hacksaw will also be useful for cutting away debris to release those who may be trapped, and a long length of rope will aid evacuations from high-rise buildings.

If an earthquake occurs when you are indoors, do not leave the building (as open spaces in Dhaka are scarce) or use a lift.  The prospect of a stampede is another reason to stay indoors.

“You might roll in a building,” said Humayun, “but if you run outside to the street, falling telephone poles and broken windows will hit you like a bullet.”

If you are outside when an earthquake strikes, place your hands on your head and crouch, and avoid trees and electricity poles.  If you are in a vehicle, turn off the engine and remain inside.

“But this is not enough,” says Humayun abruptly.  “Practice is another matter.  Even someone such as myself might panic and make the wrong decision.”

GPS seismic equipment

Humayun believes that the pandemonium caused by an earthquake could be lessened if the entire country took part in practice drills.  He advocates for the government to schedule drills at least twice a year.  Following a siren alert, everyone would assemble in a pre-determined area in their locality, which would make locating relatives a great deal easier.  However adopting the fairly simple measures described by Humayun requires the cooperation of all – and a willingness to open our eyes to the risks.