News Focus

A Bengali Recipe for Disaster

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Science  10 Jun 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6035, pp. 1256-1258
DOI: 10.1126/science.332.6035.1256

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The Great Assam Earthquake of 1897 stands as a stark warning to cities on the floodplains of South Asia, including Bangladesh's densely populated capital, Dhaka. Perched on thick, alluvial sediments 200 kilometers south of the epicenter, Dhaka was badly damaged in 1897. The ground under much of the city liquefied, destabilizing foundations. Thanks to the earthquake's gradual buildup, most people in Dhaka managed to escape before buildings disintegrated, but the city may not be so lucky next time. Scientists are finding that both its social features and its geology, including a hidden fault that seismologists believe is gathering stress beneath the sediments, could make the area more vulnerable than appreciated. Few structures in this city of 13 million are built to resist shaking. Shoddy construction is prevalent across Bangladesh and many other developing nations in seismic danger zones.