Take-aways from the building collapses in Savar and Thane

This year we have been witness to two deadly building collapses. Or at least two have been widely covered by the media. The first one reported was in Thane (Mumbai), with a toll of 74 lives of mostly low-income renter families. The second one happened in Savar, Bangladesh. Over 700 people lost their lives.

Unfortunately these events are a regular phenomenon in rapidly urbanizing South Asian cities, often involving small buildings in low-income, semi-formal and informal neighborhoods. The aggregate toll of these daily collapses would be higher than the large-scale disasters.

In our earlier posts on urb.im we've discussed the gaps in the system that lead to poor construction. The buildings are not precarious because they are illegal, they are unsafe because they are multi storey structures built without any engineering knowledge and untrained construction workforce.

These man-made disasters are not adequately investigated and their causes are explained with highly generic reasons. In Mumbai the media reported ‘use of substandard materials’ as the cause. In Bangladesh they are simply talking about ‘poor construction’ and put the onus on the international clothing agencies. ‘Bad construction’ is not far from the truth. But what the government and public must realize, and what households in informal settlements may or may not be aware of, is that this ‘poor construction’ is the rule rather than the exception. Collapses & death tolls caused by heavy vertical loads, as in these recent cases, are growing but still few. How will buildings in these types of settlements behave in the case of horizontal loads (i.e. earthquakes)?

Given India’s current urbanization and the rising cost of land and tiny plots available for shelter, households are left with only one option: going vertical. All single storey homes are expanding and adding vertical load and densities. A five floors structure in urban villages made with zero engineering inputs will not be an anomaly.

The worry is that self-built settlements that house over 60% of Indian population are the only viable option for affordable rentals and housing. For a large number of factors—social, cultural and economic being the most relevant—architects and engineers are not serving these neighbourhoods. Instead of evicting and rehabilitation such settlements where only a handful can be successful executed, there is a need to find alternative solutions that will address the problem at scale.

Definitely, top down approaches alone would not ensure compliance. One single measure that could ensure large-scale impact is the dissemination of information on safe building practices, and upgrading mason and contractor skills for construction teams that target such settlements. This would require partnering with the material suppliers such as steel, cement and tiles manufactures. Other measures would be to simplify the building code and incentivize compliance by making approvals process less cumbersome and expensive. All this requires an accountable government willing to take responsibility and invest in safety and protect human lives.

If a disaster of a large magnitude were to strike in Indian cities, the extent of damage would be crippling. And the cost of inaction is too overwhelming to estimate. There is hope not as much from government or policy but from civil society actors to catalyse and influence this sector. Agencies such as Aga Khan Planning and Building Services based in Mumbai that has been working in Kashmir post the earthquake and floods and is investing in disaster preparedness by developing the appropriate R&D and training material. Similarly, the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET)- Nepal is working with municipalities to prepare disaster risk management plans and upgrade the skills of masons. In Brazil, interestingly, the national constitution makes ‘access to technical assistance’ a fundamental human right, similar to right to health, livelihoods and education. It incentivizes architects and engineers to work in settlements aiming for safety and better quality construction.

Addressing legality is a long-term agenda, a safer built environment and protecting human lives should be an immediate one.

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