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An Urban Inequality Issue; Case of the Huruma building collapse disaster

In an urban context, such as is the city of Nairobi, living spaces are designed to perform the function as areas of relaxation, comfort, safety and security from natural and man-made urban hazards that endanger physical, social, psychological and emotional wellbeing of people. Cases of collapsed residential buildings in the city of Nairobi have undermined the safety and security functions of residential buildings, where most urban residential buildings have been declared potential scenes of building collapse disasters, instead of living spaces that preserve human lives and offer safety to urban residents.

Following the recent collapse of a 6 storey residential building in the low income estate of Huruma in the city of Nairobi, an audit report by the National Construction Authority determined that approximately 58% of residential buildings in the city are unsafe for human habitation. The Huruma building collapse, which occurred on 29th April, 2016 led to the death of more than 50 people, and left almost 200 people injured by the collapsed building structure and flying debris.

The building line of the collapsed residential building bordered the Nairobi river, which indicates that it was constructed in the riparian reserve area of the river, a factor which could have contributed to improper settlement of the building’s foundation during its construction, and undermined the load bearing capacity of the building, relative to the existing rock structure over which the building was imprinted. The zoning regulations guiding developments in the Huruma area, as well as adjacent low income residential neighborhoods of Kariobangi, Dandora, Donholm and Buruburu allow for building heights of upto five storeys high, the collapsed building had surpassed this standard consequently resulting to increased stress on the load bearing elements of the building structure.

The factors that led to the Huruma building disaster clearly indicate a case of inconclusive, poor and lack of enforcement of building standards and regulations, where construction approval may have been granted fraudulently by the Nairobi City County, regardless of the building’s improper location on a river’s riparian reserve, or alterations to the originally approved building plans made by the developer to surpass ascribed building heights so as to maximize return on investments.

A juxtaposition of residential housing demand and construction in the low and high income areas of the city of Nairobi indicates an almost equal scenario, where growing demand for housing in low income areas is mainly due to rural-urban migration and rapidly growing family sizes, while in high income areas, demand is mainly due to a rapidly growing middle class population and rapidly changing housing preferences. The demand has consequently resulted into an almost equal level of residential housing construction activity, albeit at different scales; new residential buildings in low income areas are mainly between 5 to 8 storeys high, while new residential buildings in high income areas such as Westlands, Upperhill, Kilimani and Parklands are mainly 10 to 20 storeys high.

While residential developments in high income areas are at a higher scale in comparison to low income areas, which implies a high load and stress on the load bearing elements of the building structure, no cases of collapsed buildings have occurred in high income areas due to structural fragility of the building. While lives continue being lost, and the common narrative of unending blame games between the Nairobi City County, building developers and professionals in the built industry continues, Planners, Engineers, Architects and Occupational Health and Safety experts must consider the following questions towards prevention of future urban building collapse disasters;

1. What can be done to ensure that building regulations are adhered to in low income residential neighborhoods?

2. What policy measures are needed to promote investment by high net worth developers into low income residential neighborhoods?

3. What policy measures are needed to bridge the gap between developers, professionals and practitioners in the government?

4. What measures can be put in place to ensure that currency and capital do not override the value of human life?

Other recent cases of collapsed residential buildings in the city of Nairobi include four storey building collapse in Zimmerman estate in March, 2016; five storey building collapse in Roysambu estate in April, 2015, leading to seven reported deaths, and many injuries; six storey building collapse in Huruma estate in January, 2015, leading to five reported deaths and many injuries.

 Pascal Odirah, CURI.

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