Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Death traps we live in

As evidenced by the deadly fall of the building in Alexandria, crumbling houses are a frequent occurrence in Egypt. Reem Leila reports on the latest such tragedy

The death toll from last week's collapse of the Alexandria building increased to 33. The structure, in the Loran district and believed to have been constructed in 1982, collapsed early morning after many residents had left for either work or school, consequently preventing an even greater number of fatalities.

The apartment block, which was originally designed as a seven-storey structure, was built without a licence. The owner later obtained a permit, then added an extra five floors "which was illegal", Ahmed Saleh, head of Alexandria's eastern district, said.

According to Alexandria Governor Adel Labib, the building, which consists of 36 apartments in Al-Raml district of Loran, was just one example of many structures which have violated building codes in Alexandria. Labib said there were currently 51 structures which contravene building codes, around 7,000 buildings are in danger of collapsing and 12,000 are in breach of construction regulations. He said efforts to tear the buildings down had been met with fierce opposition from residents and owners as well as investors in Alexandria's real estate market. "The families refuse to leave their homes out of fear of becoming homeless, although the governorate can provide them with alternative housing. Still, they refuse to leave," Labib said.

Local authorities had ordered the removal of the top two floors of the building because they contravened building laws issued in 1995, but the order was not implemented. The owner of the building had been ordered several times, up to 2002, to upgrade the building but work was repeatedly delayed due to disagreements among residents. According to Saleh, some workers had been renovating the first floor when the building suddenly tilted to one side and collapsed early in the morning. Labib ordered the two buildings on either side of the debris to be evacuated fearing that they, too, might fall. Labib said the governorate will pay LE20,000 in compensation to the families of the victims and LE10,000 to the injured.

Many of the sub-standard buildings which collapse in Egypt are unauthorised and not built in accordance with regulations or are constructed with poor materials, often leading to devastating consequences. In addition, some owners tend to illegally add on more storeys, making the threat of a collapse even more profound. Two people were killed in May in the Cairo working class district of Sayeda Zeinab when an old building collapsed as workers were restoring it. In 2005, at least 16 people, including two children, were killed and 17 injured when a six-storey building collapsed in Alexandria after three floors had been added illegally. In October 2006, safety violations were the cause of numerous building collapses. In November of that year, seven people died following the collapse of a four-storey building in Mansoura in northern Egypt. A year earlier, the illegal addition of three floors to a residential building in Alexandria left 19 dead.

Just after the 1992 earthquake that killed 500 people in Cairo, Al-Ahram newspaper quoted officials as saying 40 per cent of homes in the Egyptian capital could collapse.

The penalty against illegal construction was heightened in 1996 shortly after the horrific collapse of a towering building in the residential neighbourhood of Heliopolis in which 64 people died. Omayma Salaheddin, head of the Alexandria construction and development project committee, said penalties have been increased from a substantial fine and one year in jail to five years. "This is not enough, though," Salaheddin said. "The perpetrators should be sentenced to death as they kill many innocent souls. Unfortunately, these penalties are rarely applied due to the laxity of many of the authorities concerned."

Both Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Labib said a high-level committee had been formed consisting of construction experts and engineers to uncover the reasons behind and appropriate the blame for the Alex collapse. The government has yet to release an official statement on the actual cause of the fall. According to Labib, an official report to be issued by the committee will be ready within the next few days.

Prosecutor Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud issued an arrest warrant for the owner of the building, who is believed to be in Kuwait, and summoned local Alexandria officials for questioning, local media reported. Officials have also arrested two contractors and a local city council member who was released on bail, the reports added.

The Housing Committee of the People's Assembly on Saturday urged that recommendations be aimed at reducing the likelihood of building collapses in Egypt. MP Gamal Zahran, a member of the committee, said the recommendations included the appointment of consultants to assess the state of buildings for which demolition or restoration orders were issued from 1975 to 1985. "Buildings regularly collapse in Egypt, either as a result of deterioration with time or shoddy construction that fails to meet national and international standards and regulations," Zahran said. "Also, some owners illegally tack on more storeys, destabilising the structure."

The committee also called for forming an ad hoc panel tasked with finding alternative accommodation for those at risk of a building collapse, thus speeding up the implementation of demolition or restoration orders.

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