Dhaka: A city on the edge

Dhaka: A city on the brink

I would like to begin this article by offering my condolences and heartfelt prayers to the victims of the fire tragedies and their families. Many acquaintances have been deeply affected by the incident. Relatives of a close friend of mine are still unaccounted for. The nightmare might have ended, but its effect lingers on.

It has been a few days since the flames at Chawkbazar of Puran Dhaka or FR tower in Banani have subsided. But the sizzling wounds the tragedies have left in our hearts may never heal. The horrifying incident of Chawkbazar left a death toll that may be anywhere between 60 and 200, depending on the news source you choose to believe. The number, as great as it actually may be or as small as those in control would want you to believe, can’t possibly deduct any amount of horror we have experienced here. Parts of the inferno caught on footage have made our blood run cold. One can’t even begin to imagine how it would have been to be there in person.

Facts and Speculations

Let’s talk about the Chawkbazar tragedy. There have been copious amounts of speculation and debate over the specifics of the Chawkbazar tragedy. Everything from the source of the fire to the death toll possesses conflicting reports.

The general consensus is that the chemical warehouses in the area contributed to the spread of the fire. This was heavily denied by a minister and some of the local homeowners, who insist that a gas cylinder from a pickup truck triggered the fire. So much so, during a live report on the incident, a commotion of “Cylinder” chants was heard in the background. Although these parties denied the presence of chemical warehouses in the Churihatta area, none of them denied the presence of a perfume and cosmetics warehouse. I was under the strange impression that those things are made of dangerous and flammable chemicals. Especially after reports of them shooting in every direction like firecrackers during the incident.

Snide remarks aside, the Department of Explosives has confirmed that the fire did indeed have flammable chemicals at its source of spread. They also uncovered an intact gas cylinder from the pick-up truck where the fire allegedly began.

A game of shadows is evidently at play, but I don’t really want to get into that. I would rather center this discussion around the potential consequences of our acts as a nation, perhaps even a species, that have been exposed to us by this tragedy.

The Seneca Cliff: A recipe for disaster

The Seneca Cliff is a mathematical model proposed by a Florentine professor of Physical Chemistry, Ugo Bardi. The name of the model is a reference to Latin Philosopher Seneca the Younger and his verse from Letters to Lucilius, “The rise is gradual, the fall precipitous.” The model deals with problems in nature that experience decline at a considerably faster rate than growth, under some constraints. A very apt example of this would be pollution caused by humans, which is fated to doom us all rather quicker than we anticipate.

That might sound alien to our discussion, but it is frighteningly relatable with what we have faced and are yet to face. Bangladesh is one of the largest deltas in the world and is very vulnerable to Natural Disasters. About 80% of our lands are floodplains, meaning the imminent rising of the sea level due to climate change is going to drown a big part of the country. Against this geographical disadvantage, even if the defense of our coastal lines were formidable, which they are not, would fall short.

Moreover, Bangladesh is situated on the very tectonically active Himalayan orogenic belt. The possibility of a large-scale earthquake has been very real for a very long time now. We are completely helpless if such an event should occur, as Dhaka is the second densest city in the world. And the faulty construction practices in our country has resulted in a staggering 80% of our buildings being non-engineered. Meaning they are very likely to collapse if an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 or above should hit us.

The precipitous fall

All this information adds up to a simple but horrifying fact.

We are sitting on a network of ticking time bombs primed for a devastating explosion.

Be it natural or induced by man, any disaster of considerable scale holds the potential to obliterate most of us. And we have played the role of a catalyst in this, we have accelerated the process of our own doom.

The Chawkbazar tragedy is a cardinal precedent of what we have brought upon ourselves. The streets of Puran Dhaka are infamously narrow and congested. The lightest drizzle waterlogs the area, the slightest vehicular mishap blocks an entire avenue. Could you imagine the ramifications if a large-scale disaster should hit this place? You don’t really need to, the fire showed us. Say the chemical warehouses were as conveniently innocent in the disaster as claimants would have you believe. How much sense does it make to even have chemical warehouses in a residential area in the first place? Especially if said residential area is as prone to mishap as Puran Dhaka? And if chemicals really didn’t contribute to the incident, they were in the vicinity. And when they do indeed contribute to another fire (approved by all this time), do we expect even greater consequences?

The poorly planned construction, the dangerous chemicals stored near residential areas, the inadequate coastal defense, all adds up to one thing. The greed and negligence we have adopted as a nation. We have operated with personal profit in mind on every wake of our daily lives. We have made towering fortresses with matchsticks underneath. The smallest spark will set off a chain explosion that ends us all. And if the Chawkbazar Tragedy has taught us anything, we are running out of time to undo our end.