What Kenya never learnt from Haiti and Chile earthquakes – Gideon Ngumbau

What Kenya never learnt from Haiti and Chile earthquakes – Gideon Ngumbau

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The devastation arising from the earthquate that hit Haiti in 2010
The devastation arising from the earthquate that hit Haiti in 2010

As debate on the review of the Kenyan Building Code continues, it would be important to look back into the recent past and draw conclusions on the real and perceived effects of having a drab Building Code like we do as opposed to one which is up to scratch with the modern trends in construction and the realities that we face as a developing nation.

It was sometime in 2010 when two major earthquakes occurred in quick succession:  One shocking in its devastation and damage, the other, though several times stronger, much less deadlier. This is the story of Haiti and Chile.

Haiti suffered an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude on the Richter scale almost totally vanquishing its major cities especially the capital Port au prince, the heart of the devastation with an estimated death toll of about 230,000 people. Yet Chile’s earthquake several times stronger has claimed much less lives comparatively and has had far less damage to infrastructure and buildings.

At the heart of these very different outcomes is the Building code and its enforcement. Whilst Chile maintains one of the most stringent and strictly enforced Building codes on the planet, Haiti is trapped in the perennial tragedy of lackluster building regulations common in poor and developing countries.

In these cities, a haphazard and rudderless frenzy to erect buildings in the wake of rapid urbanization more often than not ignores sound building practices in the pursuit of quick profits in an environment of excess demand.

The Chile earthquake of 2010 - Though stronger than the Haiti one, its effects were less
The Chile earthquake of 2010 – Though stronger than the Haiti one, its effects were less

Authorities that are supposed to enforce these regulations view it as a basis to extract bribes from willing unscrupulous developers out to make a quick buck. In this tragic matrix of unfettered greed, an alarming number of urban dwellers continue to live in perpetual graveyards.  

The devastating experience of Haiti rings very well of what would happen if our city Nairobi experienced an equivalent earthquake or of a lesser magnitude.  In a city where buildings collapse even before completion, it is not farfetched to imagine that it wouldn’t survive a serious tremor.

Recent mild tremors gave Nairobi residents sleepless nights. Quickly and as usual whenever the integrity of buildings in the city is in the news, talk about building regulations, enforcement of the Building code and weeding of quacks in the industry came up. As soon as the tremors disappeared, all these fizzled away as we went back to our old destructive habits.

Yet the risks we put ourselves into are there for everyone to see. A casual  visit to most neighborhoods in the city especially low income neighborhoods  of Eastlands, Kayole, Komarock, Kariakor, Esatleigh, Kangemi amongst others reveals an upsetting pattern of unregulated building frenzy, structures of highly suspect integrity and zero indication of adherence to any planning guidelines.  

Whereas the building code clearly stipulates that all residential buildings above four levels have a lift, this is always adhered to in the negative even by Architects.  We may not agree with the current building code and genuinely so – there are efforts to completely overhaul it – but neither do we have the wherewithal to totally disregard it.

City Hall, an institution so hopelessly corrupt cannot alone be entrusted the safety of city dwellers. A situation where what counts to have a building approved is the amount of bribe one is willing to part with cannot be allowed to be the order of business.

Architectural practices, Architects and Engineers who connive to perpetuate these behaviors cannot be allowed to persist in our midst. The AAK must desist the theatrics of rushing to collapsed building sites whenever damage is done and seriously engage to have a thorough enforcement of the building code.

The time for action has never been more urgent. We must organize the professional community to ensure that not only are building regulations adhered to, but also ensure that a thorough exhaustive audit of all buildings in the country is done and those found unworthy condemned and demolished without hesitation.

Only then shall the credentials we so happily claim as professionals in the building industry be worth the paper they are written on.  Even if this decision would see all buildings go, it is far much better to live in a tarpaulin shed, than in a perpetual disaster zone.

1 COMMENT

  1. That is a very important issue, and Nairobi is not the only city where these facts can be pointed. I am living and working as an architect in Kigali, and I am afraid of a possible (and unavoidable) earthquakes consequences.

    I would emphasize the fact that the cost of implementing the earthquake protection on a building structure may be of only 1 or 2% of the overall cost of a building, which is very low, but still too much for greedy businessmen.

    The other problem is the ignorance of the users and clients about these issues. Education could be a good way to oblige administrations and builders to comply to the regulations.

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