Building an earthquake resilient city

Mohammad Simon Rahman :
In most cases, despite having the knowledge of a potential disaster, we fail to realise the importance of adopting the necessary risk reduction measures and do the needful to ensure a coordinated preparedness mechanism. Some construction workers under Sylhet City Corporation have set an exception as they have taken up the challenge to build their city as an earthquake resilient metropolis. A group of trained construction workers have formed a platform namely Sylhet Mason Forum which basically consists of masons and bar-binders who are putting up a collective effort to raise awareness on earthquake resilient construction across the community and also helping other construction workers learn and get involved into the process.
Sylhet is marked in the most vulnerable zone in Bangladesh when it comes to the potential of a major earthquake. This is largely because of the geographical location as Sylhet is situated very close to the Dauki Fault which is a major fault along the southern boundary of the Shillong plateau, which poses potential and massive threat of seismic hazard for the adjoining areas including the northeastern zone of Bangladesh which largely consists of Sylhet. Not just that, Sylhet also has a history for earthquakes as the city is shook by small tremors every now and then. Sylhet was affected by the Great Indian Earthquake back in 1897; and despite the fact that at that time Sylhet was nowhere near the urban city it is now, the massive earthquake had caused number of casualties and devastated some of the major infrastructures. The damage was limited only by the lack of infrastructures in the area back at that time.
It has been over a century since that massive earthquake. In these years Sylhet has seen a lot of changes in terms of structural development; especially Sylhet City Corporation has become one of the major metropolises of the country. The city area is seeing a rapid urbanization through an infrastructural bloom which includes number of high-rise malls and apartment buildings. Unfortunately, this entire urbanization process has been moving along in an unplanned manner due to lack of proper governance. Thousands of construction workers work on daily basis in this remodeling process across Sylhet City Corporation all of whom practice an unscientific construction procedure. Despite the fact that there is a scientifically sound construction guideline in place i.e. the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) which ensures the structural safety of the buildings, people involved in the construction business are either unaware of it or just happy to ignore it to avoid the additional cost involved.
Government of Bangladesh has undertaken different activities to address the scenario such as raising awareness regarding the BNBC and capacity building of the construction workers. The Housing and Building Research Institute under the Ministry of Housing and Public Works is working jointly with Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) to conduct training courses for existing Masons, Bar-Binders and Labor Contractors. Different INGOs and local organizations working on earthquake preparedness are also coming forward to contribute to these initiatives. International organizations like Islamic Relief Bangladesh and OXFAM have been working to contribute to the efforts of the government through its projects in Sylhet City Corporation. Under a project funded by European Commission Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection, Islamic Relief Bangladesh organized capacity building training for selected engineers, architects, masons and bar-binders through technical support from BUET on earthquake resilient construction according to the Bangladesh National Building Code.
Some of these trained masons later felt it is their social responsibility to work together and spread their learning with other construction workers as they came together and formed the Sylhet Mason Forum. Since the initiation of the forum, the masons have been arranging monthly meetings through an executive committee. In these meetings they discuss how they can raise awareness among the building owners to follow the BNBC guidelines and also teach the other masons on the safe construction techniques. They have also hired a small space at Khasdobir Point area to arrange their regular coordination meetings.
The mason forum has also started a Mason Welfare Fund and Forum Development Fund through a monthly deposit mechanism. Members of the forum can avail loan from this fund for minimal interest which has already benefited some of the members. The forum is also using the fund for different social activities; for example they observed the May Day in 2013. They are planning to arrange a blood grouping and blood donation campaign very soon for the masons to ensure they can arrange blood if there is a severe injury for any construction worker during their perilous work.
Sylhet Mason Forum is doing a good job in terms of raising awareness regarding safe construction. They have already convinced some of the building owners to follow the BNBC guidelines during construction of their new buildings. But the job is not as easy in all cases as often their suggestions are ignored by the construction authorities due to the additional financial implication. So the Mason Forum has established coordination with the engineering department of the City Corporation and submitted a list of the trained masons and bar-binders to the Chief Engineer so that they can recommend the list to the construction authorities while approving designs for any new building.
Right now the Sylhet Mason Forum is in process of getting official registration as a social organization. They are learning how to maintain their own resolution book and ledger book. They are also striving to increase the members of the forum as thousands other construction workers still remain detached and following the scientifically incorrect method of construction. Currently the forum is trying to enlist the trained and untrained masons and bar-binder who are still outside the forum. They know that a bigger forum would ensure a larger platform for knowledge sharing; and more members would ensure a louder voice for making their suggestions heard by the authorities to make sure that all the new constructions are resilient to an upcoming disaster. Considering their number and capacity, these construction workers hold the key to build an earthquake resilient metropolis. Sylhet Mason Forum is setting a great example for other cities of the country through their coordinated effort towards ensuring infrastructural resilience of Sylhet City. If they receive the support they require in terms of knowledge, skill and governance from the relevant authorities, they will be able to build us a safer future and ensure that the buildings will be safer during an upcoming earthquake.

(The writer is a NGO activist [email protected])

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