How safe are our buildings if an earthquake strikes Kenya?

Some 21,000 human beings left our world in seconds. The 7.5 Richter Turkey-Syria earthquakes are some of the worst in our generation.

As multi-national teams scramble to rescue victims and families grieve and bury their loved ones, hard questions are beginning to be asked. Some 6,000 kilometres away, perhaps we can pause in honour of the dead, and ask a few domestic questions too. Globally, there are less than 20 earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.0 a year. Two decades ago, the world watched in horror as a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed 20,000 people in Japan and killed 220,000 Haitians in Port-au-Prince. Monday’s disaster has already surpassed Türkiye’s last 1999 earthquake which killed 18,000 people.

Southern Türkiye and Northern Syria are hardest hit but six other countries are also affected. More than 6,000 buildings in Türkiye are now concrete caskets for both the living and the dead. Whole Syrian and Türkish neighbourhoods have been wiped out. Now in winter, both survivors and rescuers are battling -2C degree snow and icy conditions. The chances of finding adults and children alive reduces every hour that passes. Despite global-national search and rescue efforts, the situation is simply apocalyptic.

President Erdogan has argued no government can be ready for a catastrophe of this magnitude. Several brave Turkish citizens disagree.

Pointing to collapsed and still erect building towers side by side, they argue that the quality of construction is also responsible for the disaster. Like all governments worldwide, the Turkish government is bound by the duty of office and its own political survival to protect all, not only in times of natural disasters but every day. It was the lacklustre state response to the 1999 İzmit earthquake that helped propel Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party to power in 2003. Housing construction tripled in the aftermath.

With ambitious targets to increase housing supply from 50,000 to 200,000 annually, Kenya is in a similar public housing boom today. Some 39 county governments have signed Affordable Housing Programme agreements with the national administration. Vertical densification is a major focus. In the wake of Türkiye and Syria this week, and recognising that Kenya is classified as at medium risk from earthquake, is it time to transform risks of unsafe buildings?

Last year’s National Construction Authority audit noted that 200 had died and 1,000 were injured in 87 building collapses over the last five years. Five in seven buildings are currently unsafe and need to be reinforced or demolished. Some 65 per cent of these are high-rise apartment towers like the one that killed Mary Wanjiru, her two sons Carrick Mwania and Tyler Karanu in Kiambu in October.

If all it takes is Kiambu’s average wind of 16 kilometres per hour, the speed of a bicyclist, to demolish homes, this week’s earthquakes must trigger greater urgency in the built environment.

The Housing Ministry, county governments and Housing Construction Authority must eradicate the pervasive corruption, adequately invest in inspections, and ruthlessly enforce building codes. It is also time for geotechnical earthquake specialist engineers to review local regulations and construction materials against international building standards.

Building exteriors and emergency exits must be designed to block objects from striking or blocking people evacuating falling buildings.

All buildings must have emergency medical kits, safe evacuation signs and safety protocols. For the earthquake doubters among us, it is worth noting that same protocols and procedures protect us from natural (flood, landslides) as well as human-made disasters (terrorism, crime).

As we fall in prayer for the souls lost in Syria and Türkiye, I invite you to contribute what you can to Amnesty colleague Asli Tatliadim’s fundraiser page for the Turkey Mozaik Foundation.

I ask you to also write, call and urge your MP, governor, Women representative, and county assembly member to demand the built environment industry is overhauled. Ignoring building safety is another national disaster waiting to happen.

Ya Allah have mercy on the souls of the departed.

First published in The Standard on 11th February 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]