Towering infernosFires are a disaster waiting to happen in jam-packed Kathmandu
A massive fire that broke out at a furniture store at Kaushaltar, Bhaktapur on Sunday night has raised serious questions about unplanned urbanisation and the resultant threat to public safety. It took seven fire engines, more than 160 security personnel, and a horde of local residents as long as six hours to douse the blaze that completely destroyed the shop besides causing some damage to store owner Raju Shrestha’s four-storey house. What’s more, it posed a severe threat to people living in the vicinity of the furniture factory. Last month, a fire that engulfed a commercial building at Bhainsepati, Lalitpur too did a significant amount of damage to the factory and houses around it.
These are just two examples that have come to the fore. Thanks to our unplanned urban sprawl, factories, petrol pumps, party palaces, garages and so on are all established in residential areas. Undoubtedly, they pose an extreme fire risk and utterly undermine public safety. Despite such dangers, there seems to be no policy in place that restricts anyone from establishing factories and business ventures in residential areas.
Residential and industrial zones should be neatly separated. Noxious flames, fire hazards, noise from factories and so on make life miserable for people residing in the same area. Most countries have databases and conduct routine surveys to determine how many factories are set up in residential areas. They also have laws that clearly state that establishing factories in residential areas is illegal. But here, we are short on such action. Sunday’s unfortunate incident has also laid bare our incompetence in dealing with disasters.
Established by Rana prime minister Juddha Shumsher in 1937, Juddha Barun Yantra is the oldest fire station in Kathmandu. The fire brigade has 34 firefighters on its payroll and a capacity to store 38,000 litres of water. International standards stipulate one firefighter for 2,000 people, and one fire engine for 28,000 people. The Kathmandu Valley has only nine functional fire engines for more than five million people. Apart from inadequate fire engines, there are numerous problems regarding fire safety issues in the Valley. Victims often complain that the fire brigade arrives late at blaze sites. Officials cite narrow alleys, shortage of water, and traffic congestion as the main problems.
While we need to increase the number of fire engines, managing urbanisation is equally important. A lot of human damage can be avoided if factories are located away from areas where there are significant human settlements. It is the duty of local and provincial government to make sure there are rules in place that make it illegal for factories to be located in residential areas.