Kenya’s long history of housing disasters
By Robert Kibet
The Kenyan authorities have promised dire punishment for all those responsible for the collapse of a six-storey apartment building in Nairobi’s low-income Huruma suburb on Friday, in which at least 22 people died and scores are still missing.
The draconian response is familiar to Kenyans, but it doesn’t seem to put an end to the corruption and poor oversight that allows these tragedies to repeatedly occur.
President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Huruma – where Red Cross workers and local volunteers in lashing rain were scrambling to dig people out of the rubble – and vowed that the owners of the building would be arrested.
The building was earmarked for demolition in 2014, but the owner had reportedly concealed the red ‘X’ mark daubed by the county council on its walls to indicate its intended removal.
Governor Evans Kidero said that quality assurance officers would be fired, both for the failure to ensure the demolition, and for allowing the construction in the first place. The apartment block – one of three – was built next to a river, reportedly using sub-standard material, and collapsed after heavy rains and flooding.
“The fact that he managed to build the house near a river and manage to have people reside in it, yet there are officers responsible for these areas, just tells us how rife corruption is,” Kidero said on Sunday.
Owners and developers routinely use court orders to block Nairobi County from pulling down structures earmarked for demolition, the governor added, alleging that they were often in cahoots with powerful interests in the country.
Nothing ever changes
John Mathenge, CEO of Global Veterans and Peace Ambassadors, a first responders outfit made up of military veterans, has heard the tough talk before. He says it is meant to “appease” Kenyans that action is being taken, but in reality little changes.
“The president arrest order amounts to nothing,” he told IRIN. “How many times have we had such orders, but the outcome is undetermined cases in courts?”
Kenya’s construction industry is booming, with growth rates in excess of 20 percent in recent years. But a report by design and engineering firm Questworks, released in 2014, said that most of the concrete being used in Nairobi lacks the required strength.
According to one study, between 2006 and 2014, 17 buildings collapsed spontaneously in Kenya, causing 84 deaths and more than 290 injuries.
Architect Peter Mungai said the roaring demand for housing in Nairobi means that homes are being built on wetlands without proper engineering and construction safety guards.
“In many upcoming buildings, county by-laws are disregarded,” he said. “You’ll be shocked to find that permits are granted for questionable projects with the people mandated to monitor buildings processes rarely on site.”
Samuel Waithaga of COFEDI, a civil society organisation, is just as blunt. “Those in the county and the national government, mandated with approval of housing establishments in the city are corrupt.
“They are compromised to approve substandard housing, putting the lives of low-income Kenyans at risk,” he said.
Here are the worst Kenyan housing tragedies over the past decade:
• 2015: An eight-storey residential building collapses in Nairobi, killing at least two people. Kenyatta orders an audit of all buildings in the capital.
• 2014: 1 person dies and several are injured when a five-storey residential building collapses in Nairobi.
• 2013: Nine die in the collapse of a building under construction in the western city of Kisumu.
• 2011: At least two people die when a six-storey building under construction in Nairobi collapses.
• 2009: Up to 20 people feared dead in the collapse of a five-storey building under construction in Kiambu, 12 kilometres from Nairobi.
• 2006: 14 people die when a five-storey building under construction collapses in Nairobi. Rescue teams from the United States, Britain and Israel arrive to help in the search for those trapped inside. Four senior city engineers are suspended.