Another tragedy in Bangladesh


The images have been heartbreaking. Families who had little enough already were pictured rummaging desperately through the burnt-out wreckage of their homes in a shanty town in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh.

They were looking for any items that might have survived a devastating blaze that swept through Chalantika late on Friday evening. Some 1,500 shacks were destroyed making, by some estimates, up to 50,000 people homeless and destroying everything they owned.

Mercifully, it appears that this latest fire disaster killed no one, though some people were burned as they rushed to rescue a few of their possessions from the advancing blaze. Yet Bangladesh has an unacceptable history of conflagrations which in recent years have killed hundreds. Last February, the capital’s historic Chawkbazar district was gutted in a fast-moving inferno that killed more than 80 people. A similar fire in Chittagong saw nine deaths.

On top of this, Bangladesh has a scandalous history of disasters in commercial buildings run by the thriving garment trade. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza slew 1,134 people and injured 2,500 in what has been ranked as the deadliest structural failure in modern history. But under pressure from the international brands which use these deadly sweatshops to produce the goods they sell at premium prices in First World markets, the factory owners and the corrupt or indigent planning and safety officials who signed off on these buildings as safe have been cleaning up their act. Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s slum dwellers have no such advocates for their safety and well-being. It is high time that they did.

One of the reasons the weekend fire spread so rapidly was that most of the buildings in the shanty town were constructed of flammable materials much of which had been scrounged from trash heaps. Moreover, these flimsy structures were crowded together since space was at a premium. Therefore when the blaze broke out, firemen were unable to drive their fire trucks sufficiently close. There was also a lack of hydrants to which firefighters could attach their hoses. It therefore took more than six hours for them to dowse the flames. During that time, they had to cope with the additional danger of hundreds of exploding gas cylinders used for cooking.

The provision of basic housing has long been a challenge in a country where almost a third of the 160 million citizens live below the poverty line. Indeed, such is the population pressure that more than 1,100 people are packed into every square kilometer, one of the greatest densities in the world. Though successive governments have sought to at least bring clean water to sprawling slum areas, there is a grievous lack of services. And the idea that officials could enforce building regulations is laughable because their task would be utterly impossible. How can anyone order a family to make improvements to their hovel when they are already dirt poor? Following the example of Brazil and Mexico and simply bulldozing away illegal slums merely moves the problem somewhere else.

New state housing, perhaps using single prefabricated dwellings made of fire-retardant materials could be used to “renew” slum areas, alongside a program to install water, sewers and power and mandate street widths. In Turkey, municipalities have done this with many of the “geçikondular” slums, where houses are legal if they can be built and roofed in a night.