How Kenya and Uganda are grappling with calamities
It may be the collapse of an old building due to a dangerous neighboring excavation in Kampala, a fire in a popular supermarket in Nairobi or a fuel tank explosion during a fuel stealing spree in Molo, Kenya.
It is always unexpected, usually preceded by unheeded warnings or careless mistakes and normally results in preventable loss of lives.
Add to it, there is more than often, a whiff of conspiracy during the ensuring loud blame game which typically ends without a viable solution to evading such disasters in the first place.
This is the sad story of national disasters that have rocked the two neighbouring countries of Kenya and Uganda in recent times.
In Uganda’s capital it is an open secret that the city council (KCC) has lost control over construction work. How an engineer can oversee excavation of a foundation immediately next to another high-rise building is mysterious.
Even more worrying is the unwritten rule in house construction in Uganda that construction supervisors must steal a portion of building materials either for sell or for their private projects.
In the past five years, more than 8 buildings have collapsed during construction leading to much loss of lives.
In 2007, one such hotel under construction in Bwebajja on Entebbe Road collapsed and killed 11 people. The investigation committee recommended a Building Control Bill that was never implemented.
Playing with Fire
For all its benefits in preparing food at home and industry, fire remains a hazard which we must be always prepared to face. Through measures as simple as first aid and small vehicle or home fire extinguishers, to smoke alarms, water hydrants, fire drills and easily accessible fire trucks, the human and property losses to fire can be minimised. Also establishment of fire escapes on all public buildings and presence of fire extinguishers is not a choice but a need.
Mr Charles Choi — an emergency medical technician with the Nairobi City Council’s fire department — one of the first on the scene, said to the East African Standard during a recent Nairobi fire that, “We heard people screaming inside… We identified the emergency exit door and upon breaking the door, we were shocked to find a thick wall.
In boarding schools because of the obsession of authorities to control movement of pupils and students, dormitories have windows reinforced with metal bars and fire escapes inexistent or scarped from building plans, which later become a trap.
It is no wonder that between July 2003 and April 2008, Uganda experienced at least 20 school fires that have resulted in death of children and destruction of property worth millions of shillings according to the Daily Monitor newspaper.
Also, numerous oil tank explosions have claimed many more lives in both Uganda and Kenya. Luckily a Kenyan trailer maker introduced tankers with enhanced safety features that do not allow fuel spills in case of accidents, called Safety Plus. These tankers are fitted with valves underneath that snap off in case of an accident and trap the fuel inside the container.
After fire struck one of the largest markets in Uganda, commonly known as Owino, with four fire trucks and 24 fire fighters on site, the fire was put out about six hours later because, although Kampala used to have 2000 hydrants in the 1960s, there are now less than 100.
Some of these hydrants which are points from which the fire brigade draws water to put out fires according to a New Vision report were destroyed in the process of developing the city. Others were apparently filled with concrete because some Fire Brigade employees were accused of selling the water in the hydrants.
In response to the alarming rate of collapsing buildings, KCC has recently placed an indefinite ban on construction works for huge housing projects which manifest poor workmanship and are supervised by quack professionals in Uganda.
Nairobi, A Weekly Observer report states, has one fire-station, located in a now congested part of the city and is literally a stone’s throw from the scene of a recent supermarket fire.
“The hoses cannot reach fires above a certain height.”
Therefore, the report concludes, “people working in one of Nairobi’s many sky-scrapers do so at their own risk.”
The classic response to a disaster in Kenya is a commission of inquiry and a promise to improve the capacity of disaster preparedness only for the purpose of lowering public pressure.
In Uganda, Fire Masters, a professional private company which helps in putting out fires is bogged down by bureaucratic tape that has delayed streamlined collaboration with the Kampala City council in managing fires.
Besides alleged arson due to business rivalry, school fires due to indiscipline in schools, poor administration as well as private school owners playing dirty in a bid to up their competition has consistently dogged investigations into fire disasters in the region. Note that Uganda’s Ministry of Disaster preparedness is usually under funded.
One reason why calamities result in many loss of lives is the panic and curiosity of casual observers who approach the scene soon after.
It is on record that all the fuel tank explosions in East Africa cause by carelessness as poverty stricken locals, taxi drivers and conductors rush to steal leaking fuel.
During the 1998 terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi thousands of onlookers rushed to the scene within minutes implying that a second explosion would have acerbated the calamity.
Here in Rwanda it is common to see a huge crowd of people assembling even at the simplest of traffic accidents, as simple as two cars scratching each other for no apparent reason other than to watch.
Lessons for Rwanda
The strict standards that the Kigali City council and Rwanda bureau of standards on construction industry are bound to cause pain to Rwandans but as we learn from our neighbours, it is all for the public good.
It means well for a city to be well planned. Hydrants should be conveniently located and all buildings should have fire escape channels and other fire management systems.
The regulators of the construction industry must regularly crack the whip and shoddy site engineers who are not qualified to manage construction sites must face the law to discourage others.
It’s also good that the Infrastructure Ministry is already publicising all the safety standards so that Rwandan lives can be assured of safety. Play your part.