Collapsing buildings: How to move from talk to saving lives

The recent collapse of a building in Nairobi’s Embakasi area is yet another addition to a series of structures that have crumbled around the country, leaving behind a trail of destruction and scores dead.

Memories of the deadly Huruma building disaster last year that claimed more than 50 lives are still fresh in the minds of the many Kenyans. Last month, a building collapsed in Kirinyaga, killing six people. The Embakasi accident, which killed two people, had a few fatalities only because the residents heeded the evacuation notice.

Many Kenyans are exposed to grave danger as a result of sub-standard buildings and God forbid that Nairobi and other towns in Kenya should experience an earthquake. According to the National Buildings Inspectorate, about 1,440 of 4,690 houses that had been inspected in Nairobi between 2015 and the first two quarters of 2017, require urgent action.

Of these, 640 need immediate testing of the materials and standards used on concrete, and steel and bricks. The number of buildings that need immediate testing may rise significantly by the end of 2017 since the inspection exercise is ongoing.

The inspectorate, established in 2015 by a presidential order, has a mandate to enforce building standards, enforce building safety, demolish sub-standard buildings and ensure secure urban and riparian areas. It says only 51 out of 640 buildings have complied with notices issued by the inspectorate requiring building testing, remedy and action plan.

A report by the Ombudsman on another building in Huruma that collapsed in 2015 identified corruption, lack of coordination, inaction by State officers, questionable workmanship, inadequate supervision, inspection and monitoring, approval lacuna, limited skills, substandard materials and unscrupulous developers as the main causes.

Reasons for collapse

Most of these issues are also reported by the National Disaster Management Authority (2015, 2016), Kenya Accreditation Service (2016) and the Kenya National commission on Human Rights (KNCHR, 2014).

The National Disaster Management Authority said buildings collapse due to circumvention of approval procedures, human error and failure by the public to report dangerous buildings.

The Kenya Accreditation Service further attributed the collapse of buildings to poor designs, professional deficit and inadequately documented policies, systems and procedures governing national and county governments in addressing the issue. On its part, the KNCHR concurred that contractors subvert the law and construct substandard buildings to meet increasing housing demand.

According to the buildings inspectorate, apart from architectural, engineering and technical faults, there are other soft issues that need to be addressed urgently. They include law enforcement, security of the inspectorate’s team, inter-governmental and agency coordination framework, political fortification, professional negligence, integrity issues, legal capacity, personnel and infrastructure capacity as well as constructive public engagement.

So what should be done? The legal capacity of the inspectorate should be strengthened to enable it enforce compliance to standards and pursue notices once issued to the owners of risky buildings. A transitional tribunal should be established to clear the backlog of cases related to collapsed and faulty buildings.

Building quality control should be given priority in the upcoming medium-term development plans to ensure that the inspectorate is well facilitated, managed and empowered legally and in operation terms. The departments and agencies responsible for building quality controls should scale up their coordination, and operations.

The writer is a policy analyst at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis

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Collapse building