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Nat Geo: Bangladesh, Myanmar, India at Risk for Massive Earthquake

The region retailers are increasingly looking to for fulfilling their sourcing needs may be at risk for the kind of earthquake that would do more than temporarily shake up the sector.

New evidence from a National Geographic GPS study shows that the northeastern corner of India is colliding with Asia.

And, if the readings—which were collected over years and factor in GPS data from Bangladeshi tracking stations—prove true, and the region is sitting on top of an active fault, the earthquake could be akin to the 9.0 magnitude quake that rocked Japan in 2011.

Adding insult to potential injury, the fault might have been collecting stress for more than 400 years.

“That means an area more than 124 miles (200 kilometers) wide may be spring-loaded with significant levels of tectonic strain,” according to National Geographic. “If the entire fault were to give way at once, the team estimates that it could spawn earthquakes up to magnitude 9.0, causing vast devastation in a region underprepared for seismic catastrophes.”

The looming question, other than if it will happen at all, is when the fault would give way.

“Whether this region actually will slip in one single earthquake, nobody can say yes or no,” Vineet Gahalaut, a geologist at India’s National Geophysical Research Institute, told National Geographic. “We don’t have enough data to prove or disprove this.”

If the quake does hit, however, Myanmar and India may suffer, but Dhaka could face the worst of it.

Bangladesh’s capital city, population 14 million, has already suffered its share of tragedy—which it has generally been ill prepared for—and an earthquake of this magnitude could roil the country beyond repair.

“Dhaka’s basically like building a city on a bowl of Jell-O,” said Michael Steckler, a geologist of Colombia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who led the team of researchers in the GPS study. From 2003-2014, researchers installed and monitored 26 GPS tracking stations across Bangladesh to see how it was moving relative to India.

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Could Bangladesh’s apparel industry survive a quake like this?

Building codes have been a problem in Bangladesh as many go unheeded, and buildings that aren’t structurally sound have little chance against a substantial quake. What’s more, the general public isn’t versed in earthquake preparedness.

“We are preparing…but not to the level mark,” Syed Humayun Akhter, a seismologist at Bangladesh’s University of Dhaka and co-author of the study told Nat Geo. “The government and NGOs are trying to educate people, but it’s slow.”

Last year, when the 7.8 magnitude quake hit neighboring Nepal and Bangladesh felt the tremors, buildings in the country’s ready-made garment sector started to show cracks, some even tilting.

Questionable structuring contributed to the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013, and though safety-promoting organizations like the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Building Safety in Bangladesh have inspected thousands of garment factories in the country and some have been repaired to be structurally sound, there are many remaining that haven’t been inspected or haven’t had the adequate funding to perform necessary remediations.

“There is no doubt that the Alliance has had a transformative impact in strengthening the structural integrity of Bangladeshi factories where millions of women and men make a living each day,” Ambassador James F. Moriarty, country director of the Alliance and former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, said. “As a result of our trainings, workers are more prepared to respond—not only to factory emergencies, but also to natural disasters such as earthquakes. And as we saw during the most recent major earthquake in neighboring Nepal, factory workers in Bangladesh immediately called our 24/7 helpline to report potential structural damage.”

The Alliance said in a recent report that more than 1.1 million workers in upward of 770 factories have access to its confidential worker hotline, and interventions have already minimized incidents that may otherwise have been worse.

“Without question, an earthquake of the magnitude projected in the study would be devastating everywhere,” Moriarty said. “We urge the government of Bangladesh and other stakeholders to prioritize earthquake preparedness and work to coordinate disaster response at the national level.”