Sound the alarm: East Africa is defenceless

Sunday September 18 2011

Sinai residents’ anger over govt absence
Trenches and streams turned into rivers of fire on September 12, 2011 in Sinai slum. About 100 people died in the tragedy.
Trenches and streams turned into rivers of fire on September 12, 2011 in Nairobi's Sinai slum. About 100 people died in the tragedy.

Two tragedies that occurred in the East African region in the past week — a slum fire in Kenya and a ferry accident in Tanzania — caught Nairobi and Dar es Salaam off guard and exposed the bloc’s frail disaster management mechanisms.

Over 90 people died and more than 120 were severely burnt after a fire caused by an exploding oil leak from a fuel depot owned by the Kenya Pipeline Company swept through the densely populated Sinai slum in Nairobi’s industrial area.

In Zanzibar, more than 200 people died after a ferry sank last weekend off the coast of Nungwi village, leaving Tanzania battling its worst maritime disaster in 15 years.
Despite repeated assurances by the East African Community governments that their countries are well equipped to deal with disasters, rescuers laboured to get people to safety, treating casualties, preventing further damage and managing panic — the key elements of disaster management.

East Africa now faces a huge relief and reconstruction effort especially since the two tragedies come at a time the region is reeling from the effects of its worst drought in 60 years.

While EAC governments have not estimated the cost of the damage nor indicated how much they will have to spend on reconstruction and compensation to families, economists estimate the bill will run into millions of dollars.

In its 2010 report, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says it spent at least $1.8 million in disaster management across the five EAC countries.

The Board of Registration of Architects and Quantity Surveyors says Kenya has lost more than $15 million as a result of collapsed buildings in the past 15 years. Over 24 buildings have collapsed in the country since 1996, killing hundreds of people.

The two tragedies last week also brought into the spotlight the inadequate disaster response capacity in the region.

“No single state has the capacity to individually deal with all disasters as they arise. The five countries need to devote more financial and human resources to disaster management” said Odhiambo Makoloo, the director of the Institute for Law and Environmental Governance.

Experts warned the bloc is sitting on several disasters waiting to happen, as authorities have faltered in enforcing regulations such as building codes, public transport rules and settlement by-laws.

EAC member states lack a coherent response to tragedies, often turning to developed countries such as the US, Israel and UK as well as neighbouring countries for assistance.

Tanzania, for example, had to seek the help of South Africa to assist in the search and rescue operations. While the ferry was estimated to have been carrying over 1,000 people, only 197 bodies had been found by Friday. At least 600 passengers were rescued, government figures showed.

The failure by the EAC to put in place a comprehensive disaster preparedness policy means its response to high-risk events such as bombings, cave-ins, droughts, floods, epidemics and major accidents tends to be slow, poorly co-ordinated and unnecessarily expensive. This gap was evident during the Sinai fire when fire-fighters arrived late and the disaster zone remained largely accessible to the general public, creating confusion as crowds milled around and prolonging the time and effort needed to reach those affected.

Rescuers across the EAC lack essentials such as thermal-imaging and audio equipment that can help locate trapped people.

“Highly inflammable materials are still largely transported by road here, and spills are bound to occur,” said Uganda’s Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru.

“What is worse, a fatal combination of poverty and ignorance makes our people particularly vulnerable to such disasters.”

Experts said some companies continue to thrive by ignoring safety standards while politicians who often double up as slumlords block the enforcement of safety rules such as eviction of households living in disaster-prone areas such as under electricity lines.

Incidents of buildings under construction collapsing due to substandard materials, poor workmanship and complicity by corrupt city council officials have become common in Kenya. This year alone, at least 30 people have died under such circumstances.

According to the Architectural Association of Kenya estimates, over 65 per cent of buildings in Nairobi are death traps as they do not meet minimum safety standards.

Experts said the enactment of the National Construction Authority Bill should help rid the sector of rogue contractors and curb poor workmanship.

In April last year, 245 people died when landslides covered them overnight in Bududa on the slopes of Mt Elgon in Uganda. Last month, landslides again buried 41 in seven villages in Bulambuli district.

On June 24, 2002, a derailing passenger train crashed into a cargo train in Tanzania, killing 288. While hundreds of survivors were trapped in the wreckage for hours, many rescuers were using ordinary saws to cut through metal on the train to try to free those trapped inside.

Early this year at least 20 people were killed and over 300 injured by suspected multiple bomb blasts, which destroyed all 23 armouries at the Gongola Mboto military camp in Dar es Salaam.
 A similar explosion in 2009 at another military base in Dar es Salaam killed at least 26 people, leaving 700 injured. In July last year, 79 people died in twin bomb blasts that went off simultaneously at two different locations in Kampala.

Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack it blamed on Uganda’s involvement in Somalia where it has deployed peacekeepers.

The recent maritime disaster in Tanzania, experts and policymakers said, has brought into focus conflicts between two maritime transport institutions supposed to ensure the safety of passengers on the Mainland and Zanzibar.

“It is unthinkable that the two institutions had different safety standards,” said Tanzania’s Chief Secretary Philemon Luhanjo.

With rampant overloading of passengers and cargo on most vessels that ply between Zanzibar and Pemba, officials warned more disasters could be in the offing as the memories were rekindled of the disaster of May 21, 1996, when MV Bukoba capsized in Lake Victoria, killing over 800 people.

Rwanda has this year set out to put in place an effective early warning system, conducting vulnerability and hazard mapping in disaster prone areas, increasing skills in disaster risk reduction, as well as establishing a prompt response plan.

Kenya’s fuel depots’ security is compromised by encroaching of settlements and human activities on pipeline wayleaves and lack of designated parking facilities for road tankers, raising questions over the commitment of the government to enforcing regulations on settlement. “The law provides for planning and segregation of residential areas from industrial areas.

With the Sinai slum fire, the question was: Is it the service providers, or do we have a role to play in ensuring our own safety?” asked Mr Makoloo.

The Kenya Pipeline Company has been unable to deal with encroaching on wayleaves as politicians resist any move to evict people from illegal settlements.

Additional reporting by Kennedy Senelwa and Michael Wakabi