What We Learn From Building Collapses in Kenya

Brenda Wambui
20 June ,2017

On the night of Monday, 12th June 2017, a seven storey building collapsed in Kware Pipeline in Embakasi. This building had been condemned by the National Construction Authority (NCA), and marked with an X on the outside to indicate this. The tenants in the building had been warned of its collapse, and most of them had evacuated it. They did so after cracks opened up in its walls and it was visible that the building would not survive much longer. However, they said “two to ten or more people were missing” having refused to leave the building when they were warned.

By Tuesday morning, St. John Ambulance established that 15 people were missing. The owner could not be traced. They only knew him by one name – Karanja. A Nairobi Lands executive said that Kware area was unplanned, and that no developments were allowed there. However, most of the developers there “were brought” by politicians. In the rubble, one could see many personal belongings, such as jerricans. Residents of Kware, angry about the slow pace at which government operators were carrying out the rescue mission, threw stones. In turn, the police fired tear gas at them, slowing down the whole operation. This is not the first time that buildings have collapsed in Kenya, killing people in the process.

On the night of 29th April 2016, during the heavy rains season, at least 12 people were killed when a six storey building in Huruma collapsed, and over 130 people were injured. Rescue teams were late to the scene of the collapse, no doubt leading to more people dying, because of traffic jams on the roads due to flooding. The day before that, a wall collapsed on Lenana Road, killing four people. In 2015 alone, eight buildings collapsed killing 15 people. This led to Uhuru Kenyatta ordering a buildings audit, which covered most parts of Eastlands, Dagoretti, Kasarani, Zimmerman, Roysambu, Githurai 44 and 45, Garden Estate, Thome, and Kilimani. This audit, carried out by the NCA, found that 58% of the buildings in Nairobi were unfit for habitation. In early 2015, it was also found that about 60% of buildings under construction in Nyeri, Muranga, Kirinyaga, Laikipia, Embu and Nyandarua counties risked being demolished because they did not comply with the National Construction Authority Act 2014.

The fact that it continues to be possible to put up multi-storey death traps is something we need to question. To begin with, most of these buildings have inadequate foundations vis a vis their size. The owners/developers of these buildings cut costs by not having solid/deep enough foundations, because they are generally costly. In many cases, they also do not consider the solidity of the soil in the area in which they are building. Buildings end up being built in swampy areas, and collapse as a result.

Then, the materials used in construction simply can’t bear the load of some of these buildings. Counterfeit materials are used, and sometimes scrap metal is even substituted for steel. Even when steel is used, it is weaker than what is required to carry the load of the building. The concrete in many of these buildings also tends to be substandard. Even when the right materials are available, sometimes the workers make mistakes, many of which can be attributed to poor training and lack of skills. Badly mixed concrete, for example, even when it is of the correct quality, may still be unable to carry the load of the building. The reason these workers are hired in the first place yet they lack the skill is because building owners/developers want to cut costs.

This is the same reason why many of these buildings tend not to have involved an architect or engineer when being constructed. As a result, we get buildings that are structurally weak, and that will eventually collapse. The strength of these buildings also isn’t tested, yet this is supposed to happen according to the law. This happens for the same reasons that these buildings are able to be constructed in the first place – at every stage of construction, there are many building owners/developers looking to cut corners and save money, and willing bribe takers that are part of the system supposed to enforce our regulations who enable them by looking the other way. The people who die when these buildings collapse are victims of greed and corruption.

It would seem that much of the available housing that is unfit for habitation is in low income urban areas. Buildings in middle and high income areas are mostly safe. It becomes apparent that we do not care about poor people in this country. This is why people in the slums do not have running water; why the hygiene in their neighbourhoods is poor, and sanitation facilities scanty. Why we don’t care that they can’t afford cleaner forms of fuel and have to use charcoal to cook. Why we are only concerned once something disastrous happens. Like flooding, or a fire. Or a building collapse.

The collapse of the building in Kware, and the many others before it, is a direct consequence of the corruption and greed that we allow to run our country. It is proof that corruption kills. It is an indictment of our systems and institutions, and until we change them, Kenyans (disproportionately the poor) will continue to die.

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