The massive fire that broke out in a squatter settlement in Balkhu on Saturday, gutting 60 houses before it could be brought under control, is indicative of the sorry state of our vital infrastructures and of our poor emergency response mechanism. Firefighters could not get to the site of the flames on time, as there simply was no way in. The houses in the settlement, mostly made of corrugated iron sheets, are jam-packed into a tiny space. They are thus not only vulnerable to widespread conflagration, but also to various communicable diseases that are easily spread with potable water in short supply. These houses are also highly susceptible to earthquakes. It is vital that these settlements have at least one major road that cuts right across them, and preferably more, so that the houses have some breathing space and so that emergency responders can get there on time. Yet many settlements in Kathmandu valley, mostly located by its major rivers, have failed to adopt even minimum safety standards. With most residents eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, perhaps securing their homes and community against various natural and man-made disasters is not high on their priority.
This is why it is important that local government intervenes to spread awareness on safety measures to secure homes and settlements. A road that can accommodate a fire engine should be made mandatory. Such a road will also help residents safely move around in the event of a big earthquake. Moreover, the blaze on Saturday put our woeful fire-fighting capabilities in sharp relief. The major fire-control stations in Kathmandu were badly hit by the 2015 earthquakes and they have still not been fully rebuilt. There are also nearly not enough fire engines that a city of Kathmandu’s enormous dimensions require. Nor is there big enough space in every locality where people can congregate during emergencies. Forget the slums; even the choicest localities in Kathmandu are chockablock with one after another concrete monster going up by the day; there is progressively little open space that can be used during emergencies. During the recent local elections, nearly all mayoral candidates in Kathmandu valley had promised more recreational spaces and better town planning. But four months down the line, they have done very little to make Kathmandu a safer and healthier place to live in.
One reason Saturday’s fire in Balkhu quickly snowballed, and resulted in such widespread damages, was that around 15-odd LPG cylinders there exploded. It is not unusual for a single three- or four-storey house to have around a dozen LPG cylinders, these days as commonly used for cooking purpose as it is used to heat water for bathroom use. So should a big fire engulf one of these houses, these LPG cylinders could act as catalysts that further fan the flames. Safer versions of the LPG cylinders are now available in the market, but they are yet to catch on. The packed settlements of Kathmandu are thus fast turning into ticking time bombs, which can go off at any time, to devastating effect. Saturday’s fire at Balkhu will hopefully be a timely wake-up call.