The tragic collapse of buildings under construction is not a new phenomenon in Nairobi and Mombasa. What is always new, however, is the myriad excuses authorities give for any building that collapses.
Only last week, a 6-storey building collapsed in Nairobi’s Pipeline area. Sadly, it claimed 7 lives. This Sunday, another city 4-storey building gave in. Luckily, no live was lost but six men were injured and rushed to hospital.
Heightened demand for urban residential and commercial housing has seen an unprecedented construction boom. The construction industry is a major contributor to Kenya’s economy explaining the over 3 million tonnes of cement consumed last year.
The poorly regulated industry is fast becoming a major contributor of deaths, injuries and severe losses out of increasing of collapsing buildings not to mention those waiting to collapse.
The sad truth, according to conservative Architectural Association of Kenya estimates, is that over 65% of buildings in Nairobi are death traps. They can and will collapse at the slightest provocation.
Either a severe rainstorm or a slight earthquake, matters mankind has little control upon, is all that is needed to bring down the many high density area buildings, literally waiting to kill. They are a ticking time bomb. Regrettably, authorities only talk tough after such tragedies pledging action in vain.
But as construction experts say, earthquakes do not kill. It is the buildings which kill! It is, therefore, more about quality and integrity of buildings than the severity of occasional rainstorms or earthquakes.
In mitigation to this emerging crisis, line authorities have perfected the blame game and buck passing. The result is that they buy time as their joint inaction increases such potential killer buildings.
It is no wonder that no public officer has ever offered to voluntarily resign after the hundreds of lives that have been lost in collapsed buildings for the past two decades.
That Kenya has the best construction engineers, architects, quantity surveyors and planners is not in doubt. That a fair proportion of the professionals are often compromised - to approve poor workmanship - is equally not in doubt.
Dirty money changing hands together with political and other influence summed up as impunity, and not necessarily the judiciary as some quarters suggest, are what have pushed up the number of questionable buildings.
A story is told of a public planning officer who is confronted by a corrupt and aggressive developer – with a full white envelope in his left and a pistol in the right hand – demanding the planner to choose either of the two before hastily walking away.
On many occasions, it has become the norm rather than an exception for concerned authorities to choose the white envelope and approve drawings and other construction applications they do not believe in. By so doing they sign to murder innocent souls who will occupy such a building.
For the few firm and patriotic planners who have had extraordinary guts to decline approvals, they have lived with death threats and humiliation of constant transfers to far-flung areas. This has particularly persisted for Nairobi and other major towns.
It is Kenya. Professionals have taken a lesson or two from politicians. Forget the talk of professionals accusing some developers of resorting to quacks to save a coin or two. Forget empty talk of flight of professionals, especially public planners, to the private sector and elsewhere for greener pastures. The few remaining should still do the right thing.
City Council of Nairobi (CCN) should tell it to the birds – safe for very minimal cases, Judiciary is not to blame for mushrooming buildings which fall short of the Physical Planning Act, Cap 286 and the building codes.
I submit that CCN should look at a reformed Judiciary as an ally and not a foe on eradicating uncontrolled developments. It is easier said than done to accuse the Judiciary which organ of government bases its judgments on evidence adduced and quality of arguments from both sides of the defendants and plaintiffs.
Clearly, the problem is with CCN. It begins with the quality of external lawyers CCN picks. Assuming they are good enough, CCN has no control on the many of them who collude with the developers lawyers to ensure CCN is on the losing end. After all, the CCN wasn’t paying its outsourced lawyers and other suppliers on time, at least talking about the past.
Another quick story and for once imagine this in Kenya. Burj Khalifa, previously known as Burj Dubai, is the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai, standing at 828 m (2,717 ft). It took about 5 years to be completed.
The tower's architecture and engineering were performed by Skidmore, Owings and Merill of Chicago with Adrian Smith as chief architect and Bill Baker as chief structural engineer. The main contractor was South Korea’s Samsung C&T. The building cost a cool Sh135 billion.
Talk of experience and Adrian Smith is the name behind Shanghai’s 88-storey building which houses the Grand Hyatt Hotel. The building was made to withstand an earthquake of 7 on the richter scale. It is fortified against typhoon winds of up to 200km/h. Interestingly, its top can sway up to 75cm without breaking. Its 57th floor swimming pool acts as passive shock damper.
The long and short of this story is that key world buildings do not just get good professionals. They shop for the very best and only those with proven experience. They are paid handsomely. You have respected professionals who will do everything to safeguard their reputation. In Kenya, the story is slightly different.
But what needs to be done in our case? As a matter of urgency, a multi-disciplinary and representative technical taskforce needs to be appointed to tabulate and clearly mark buildings whose approval process and/or workmanship is in question.
Once marked, they must be condemned and be immediately vacated awaiting the demolition process in which case the developer must be given a fair hearing.
In brief and to effectively hold brakes on the number of collapsing buildings and potential ones, drastic action must be taken at three levels;
First, a sufficient one-stop legal mechanism for planning and construction industry needs to be put in place. That legislation must have water-tight enforcement mechanism with serious penalties with possibility of equating collapse of buildings to crime of murder – and have individuals take personal responsibility from the developer, professionals to officers approving the same.
Second, construction financing banks must ensure they have all requisite and authentic confirmation from authorities before they release finances to prospective borrowers. Corruption in design approval processes or when the developer pushes the contractor to rush development in order to service bank loans must be stopped.
Public participation in surveillance of approvals must be enhanced in line with the spirit of the new constitution particularly as regards article 46 on consumer rights. Partial occupancy of buildings under construction should be immediately prohibited.
The writer, Mr. Stephen Mutoro, is Secretary General, Consumers Federation of Kenya (Cofek)
Last Updated (Monday, 20 June 2011 07:52)