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Old Dhaka remains a time bomb ticking away

  • Published at 05:11 pm February 20th, 2021
Chawkbazar Fire
File photo: Haji Wahed Mansion at Nandan Kumar Lane, in Chawkbazar's Churihatta area of Old Dhaka, engulfed in a massive fire on Wednesday, February 20, 2019 Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Chemical businesses continue unabated

Old Dhaka remains a ticking time bomb during fires because of illegal chemical warehouses, unplanned building construction, narrow roads and high population density.

Nearly two years have passed since the country’s most devastating fire at Wahed Mansion in the Churihatta area of Old Dhaka’s Chawkbazar that claimed 71 lives.

But the chance of another fire as ferocious as that one remains high: chemical businesses continue to run unabated in the area, while many shops and factories violate fire safety guidelines. 

The government took several measures to reduce risks of fire in the wake of the tragedy, but they appear to have been in vain.

Old Dhaka is a firefighter’s nightmare

Multiple firefighters told Dhaka Tribune a fire in Old Dhaka was their worst nightmare. While fires in other areas can be dealt with relatively efficiently, narrow roads in Old Dhaka make access for fire trucks nearly impossible.

Furthermore, there is no telling when a fire may ignite a batch of illegally stored chemicals and cause another Chawkbazar-like catastrophe. Removing illegal chemical warehouses and factories from the area would reduce the risk from fires in the area by 80%, according to sources at the Bangladesh Fire Service & Civil Defence (FSCD).

The first obstacle is narrow roads, which are very common in the old part of the city, said one firefighter, said one firefighter.

“Big fire trucks cannot enter such roads, so we are forced to send two-wheelers and three wheelers while keeping the trucks on the main roads. The smaller vehicles cannot carry enough water and they need many trips to get the job done,” he said.

Also read- One year of Chawkbazar inferno: Trauma still haunts survivors

Another problem is a lack of adequate water supply in Old Dhaka. Fire trucks must collect water from the Buriganga River or WASA water pumps, which are not available on narrow roads. 

So a system of pipes must be put in place before any firefighting can begin.

Firefighters always look for underground water reserves in residential buildings, but they are often not present as buildings have been constructed through a flouting of the building code.

“The city is totally unplanned, and many residential buildings have illegal warehouses in the basements,” said another firefighter. 

There are small factories in the buildings as well, and some have shops on the ground floor. 

The shocking part is that some of the places are used for repacking and refilling different kinds of cylinders with highly flammable gas to produce fake cosmetics and other products, with the entire process kept secret as it is mostly illegal, he added.

“When a fire starts [in Old Dhaka], the gas, plastic and other chemicals make the flames massive and devastating,” said Abdul Halim, assistant director (operations) at FSCD headquarters.

Many areas, like Lalbagh and Armanitola, do not have any water source, he added, adding that firefighters in these areas usually relied on the ponds inside the old central jail in Bakshibazar.

No survey of Old Dhaka

The FSCD has a rough idea of the establishments in most areas of the capital, which assists them in fighting fires. However, establishments in Old Dhaka are a different matter.

“For example, we know where the residential buildings, shops or universities are in Dhanmondi. On the other hand, building owners in Old Dhaka rent out flats for warehouses and factories randomly for extra money,” Halim said.

After a fire breaks out in Old Dhaka, firefighters are only able to get an idea of the location and source after arriving at the scene and inspecting the type of flames.

“The way you douse the fire is different, depending on whether it is an electrical short circuit, chemical fire or whether plastics and synthetic items are involved. We need to prepare differently for each of these. We would prepare to douse a household fire when going to Dhanmondi residential area, but we cannot gauge what is needed until we get to the site of a fire in Old Dhaka,” he added.

Fire disaster in Old Dhaka would not be surprising

Old Dhaka was nothing but a ticking time bomb, said Adil Mohammed Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Institute of Planners.

“Voices were raised after the Nimtoli tragedy [that took 124 lives in June 2010] to demand the relocation of the chemical factories and warehouses, but that did not happen and subsequently the Churirhatta incident took place. Chemical industries and warehouses cannot be set up in residential areas, but people have been doing it secretly for a long time. We need to relocate the warehouses permanently,” he said.

“The government has designated a separate place for this industry, but the process is still underway,” said the professor of the urban and regional planning department at Jahangirnagar University.

Noted architect Iqbal Habib suggested a mandatory renewal of land licenses and regular inspections to ensure that illegal chemical warehouses were not set up.

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