According to numerous news sources, including CNN, more than 10,000 people in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka were displaced when a massive fire swept through a shantytown inhabited largely by poor garment factory workers last Friday evening. The loss could have been far greater, if the majority of residents were not off celebrating the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday with loved ones.
A local police chief told CNN that approximately 2,000 structures made out of corrugated metal, plastic and wood were quickly consumed by the fire. Impoverished residents were able to flee the fire – only a handful of occupants were injured according to news reports - but most lost all their possessions. The media outlet reported that Bangladesh State Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Enamur Rahman estimated that approximately "80% of the slum has been completely or partially destroyed."
Atiqul Islam, mayor of the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), told The Independent that “permanent establishments” were being erected nearby to house the victims of the blaze. In the meantime, residents sought temporary shelter at schools that were closed for the holiday week. Bangladesh officials have offered food and finances to those affected by the fire; and have indicated that the homeless will continue to receive assistance moving forward.
A report detailing fire investigation findings is expected within the next two weeks.
It’s important to note that Dhaka is not the only corner of the world struggling with devastating shantytown fires. In November 2018, NFPA Journal’s Angelo Verzoni wrote an article and sidebar story, chronicling serious fire problems within an informal dwelling community near Cape Town, South Africa. Verzoni reported on the Wallacedene Temporary Resettlement Area (TRA), a 16-acre neighborhood with approximately 4,500 residents and a long history of fire and flooding hazards. In response to persistent fires in the shantytown, the government spearheaded a project that placed battery-powered smoke alarms into homes. The result? Zero fire deaths in the settlement during that period.
Informal dwelling challenges extend far beyond Dhaka or Cape Town though. “Building regulation experts say as much as 80 percent of the built environment in developing countries was created without regulatory tools such as codes and standards. A very significant part of the built environment globally is informal, which means not benefiting from land-use regulation or building regulation as it relates to safety,” Fred Krimgold, a senior consultant with the World Bank Group’s Building Regulation for Resilience Program told Verzoni at the time. This means an astronomical number of people are at risk for dying in fires. A study published in 2017 by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, states that over 300,000 people around the world die each year in fires, with about 95 percent of deaths occurring in low- to middle-income countries, while millions more are seriously injured.
Dhaka’s fire woes are not restricted to shantytowns. Earlier this year, NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley wrote about 80 people being killed and scores more being injured when an intense and fast-moving blaze broke out in a mixed-use part of the old city combining residences, shops, and chemical storage warehouses. A similar incident happened in Dhaka in 2010. The densely populated region has also experienced tragic factory fires, notably in 2016 and 2013, which respectively took the lives of 23 and more than 1,000.