Wednesday, January 20, 2010



Wednesday, 20th January, 2010

Opiyo Oloya

Opiyo Oloya

Many tall buildings in Africa are not built with disaster in mind

The earthquake that hit Haiti last week showed how fragile life really is.

One moment, the people of Port-au-Prince were going about their business, the next moment they were buried deep in rubble. According to survivors, it took seconds, and it was all over.

The dead, estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000, continue to pile up on roadsides. Many of the victims are buried under piles of rubble, some alive, crying for help which will never come.

Even before the dead are buried, we, as part of the global community need to take stock of the tragedy.

Would this tragedy be different if it had befallen a rich developed nation? If so, what lessons could poor developing countries learn from this catastrophic event?

To the first question, the answer is yes, it mattered that Haiti is poor. I would suggest that those victims buried alive never really had a chance.

It was not for lack of trying by courageous survivors who used bare hands to dig through the debris to reach those trapped underneath, many working until they fell back completely exhausted, unable to do more.

Being poor, Haiti has no search-and-rescue facilities to speak of.

There were no rescue dogs that could sniff survivors and, even when the cries of those trapped underneath the rubble could be heard loud and clear, there were no earth-moving equipment to clear away the heavy concrete.

What is more, the few earth-moving equipment that were there were either broken for lack of spare-parts or did not have fuel.

Meanwhile, with help arriving from all over the world in hundreds of planes, the problem quickly shifted to the infrastructure to support such a massive effort.

The airport in Port-au-Prince is overwhelmed as plane after plane circle above trying to land with precious cargo, but cannot.

And even when the planes land, the roads are too clogged to allow the equipment and food supplies to be hauled away from the airport to those who need it most.

As matters stand now, the people of Port-au-Prince are starving to death literally within a stone-throw of the food pouring from around the globe.

The lesson that poor developing countries in Africa need to learn from Haiti is that the lack of infrastructure planning kills often, but in times like this the death toll rises dramatically.

Foremost, seeing how the buildings in Port-au-Prince including the presidential palace caved in like pancakes, trapping thousands inside, it is obvious that they were not built to withstand a 7.0 earthquake.

Indeed, truth be told, how many buildings in any of the major African cities today are built with earthquake in mind? Which buildings in Kampala, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Abidjan, Cairo, and so forth can really stand up to a big quake like the one that hit Haiti?

What this says is that planning for densely populated cities in Africa must accommodate the possibility of a future catastrophe such as a hurricane, earthquake or landslide that may never come, but when it does as happened this time in Haiti, could potentially wipe out a significant part of the population.

One might argue that it is sheer paranoia to think the worst when planning a city, but what else is there to think when one witnesses the chaotic rubble that is now Port-au-Prince?

The only way to minimize future loss of life is to think the unthinkable possibility, to imagine the absurd that things will fall apart because of a natural or man-made disaster.

Currently, many tall buildings in big cities in Africa are not planned with disaster in mind. Many buildings in Kampala and Nairobi, for instance, are fire traps waiting to happen.

I have slept uneasily in high end hotels that are built to keep the unwanted burglar out, complete with iron-grills for windows, yet absolutely no escape route in case of fire or earthquake or anything else.

I would rather take my chances with a burglar than be trapped in a hotel that is shuttered with iron grills that offer no escape route.

Secondly, it is not just the buildings that need to be planned to accommodate catastrophe of the magnitude we are seeing in Haiti.

People too need to be educated regularly on how to survive disasters, to weather crisis. Investment must be made to train emergency personnel and buy equipment for deployment in disaster relief, who are able to mobilize within hours to respond to a crisis.

And there is a need to stockpile emergency supplies, just in case—food, gasoline, water supply, and blood, a lot of blood.

For instance, I read that Uganda hospitals are currently running low on blood supplies. This is not a good position to be in case of a big emergency.

Hospitals count on a steady supply of blood to treat the wounded.

Now, I would like to encourage all the good Ugandans out there reading the column to go and donate blood today or within the next 48 hours. One never knows when the blood supply is needed.

No doubt, Haiti will rise up again and, hopefully, the building codes will take into account the very possibility of another massive earthquake.

At least, I hope so. But for those developing countries now struggling with planning new cities and towns, the lesson must not be lost that proper planning is needed today in order to deal with natural or man-made disasters tomorrow.

It is the only way to think about the unknown.