Urban areas usually have a high accumulation of populations and assets; therefore, disasters occurring in urban zones will have greater impacts in terms of loss and damage when compared to rural areas which usually have a dispersal of people and resources. Consequently, the urban settings of disaster risk reduction are different from the rural contexts.
In recent years, hazards that have led to disasters in many urban centres in Africa include the poor construction of buildings and uncontrolled development which has seen the construction of buildings in waterways and drainage. This has resulted in deaths from collapsing buildings, floods, explosions, amongst others. These losses of lives would have been avoided with the appropriate legislative framework and enforcement mechanism.
Synopsis of the Problem
The frequency of deaths from collapsing buildings in West Africa is alarming. Examples from the two major economies in the region, Nigeria and Ghana, indicates how dire the problem is. The collapse of the Melcom multi-storey shopping centre in the Achimota neighbourhood of Accra in 2012 which killed at least 9 persons was blamed on faulty construction. In January 2017, a school building collapsed on pupils in Ghana, killing 6 kids. The foundations were said to be weak. In March 2016, at least 34 people were killed after a five-storey building under construction crumbled in Lekki District, Lagos, Nigeria. The preliminary reports suggest that the building construction was illegal, and even after the contractors were served a contravention notice for exceeding the number of allowed floors, the owners continued building beyond the approved floors. More than 160 people lost their lives in December 2016 when the Reigners Bible Church roof caved in on worshippers in the southeastern Nigerian city of Uyo. The church was said to be under construction, but there was a rush to complete in time for the ordination of the bishop. In September 2014, at least 115 people were also killed when a church hostel belonging to Nigerian TV evangelist TB Joshua collapsed in the city of Lagos. About 84 of the dead were said to be South Africans. The government claimed the church did not get approval before construction.
The frequency of flooding in urban centres in Ghana and Nigeria has also been linked to poor enforcement of building codes as people are building in waterways and slum communities are rising in areas prone to flooding while poor waste disposal practices are contributing to the choking of the drainage system in the rainy season. The June 4, 2015 explosion at a petrol station in Ghana's capital city Accra, which killed over 250 people was triggered by floods.
Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction
The first step in addressing the problem of poor building construction practices in urban is to mainstream disaster management. The 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction advocates for the building of disaster-resilient societies. Many countries have introduced legislation and policies for disaster risk reduction at the national levels. But mainstreaming at the local level, especially at the municipal level can be a cumbersome process. For example, the rapid urbanisation of some African cities is generating new vulnerabilities that are exacerbating the existing hazards. Furthermore, municipalities in Africa are often incapacitated to deal with the myriad of hazards. The high urban population growth rate, coupled with the reduced capacities of municipal authorities to enforce building codes is engendering the situation where unscrupulous contractors can flout building standards or where poor and marginalised populations can settle and construct homes in unsafe areas.
The importance of a supporting legislative framework
A supporting legislative framework coalesces legal reform with key policy processes which determines the priorities and mandates of responsible institutions and further explains the roles, rights and responsibilities of stakeholders, including the municipal authorities, construction companies and building owners.
An enabling legislation also imposes a fiduciary duty on institutions to implement the building regulations; but such enforcement is often lacking due to a combination of different factors such as a lack of resources on one extreme or a conscious dereliction of duty on the other extreme.
Some countries have taken huge steps in ensuring that their cities are more disaster-resilient. In Ethiopia, Building Code 1995 (EBCS-8) provides a strong legal framework for safe buildings, and the code contributes directly to the disaster risk reduction endeavours by guaranteeing that buildings are disaster-resilient. Proclamation 574/2008 specifically addresses urban land use in Ethiopia. The Proclamation compels each city to have local development plans with specifics on land use categories, locations of future public infrastructure, and residential zonal planning.
In Turkey, the Law on Land Development Planning and Control 1985 guarantees that geological studies must be conducted before construction permits are issued. Areas with high seismic risks are excluded from development.
Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in zoning laws also reduces risks by adopting preventative measures. The appropriate zoning regulations can address the problem of development in flood zones and restrict the growth of precarious settlements. Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, has zoning laws that promote that regulates settlements in areas prone to flooding.
Sound Legislative Framework is not sufficient to solve the problem
While the importance of a legislative framework for disaster risk reduction is a first step in addressing urban disasters, its presence does not necessarily suggest that urban disaster risk reduction will be successful. Lack of enforcement is the main hurdle for the success of risk reduction efforts.
Additionally, there can be instances where a legislation may be defective; for example, when the laws do not have expressed regulatory powers or if the laws are outdated. An example is the revised Development Law of Turkey, which did not address where hazardous facilities should be located. When this happens, a city may be faced with the prospect of having potentially dangerous facilities such as gas stations and chemical factories located in commercial and residential areas. The death toll from the aforementioned 2015 gas station explosion in Accra, Ghana was extremely high because many persons were exposed to a potentially dangerous facility that was located in a busy commercial and residential area.
The presence of a legislative framework may also have unintended consequences. For example, a regulation may endeavour to remove informal and precarious settlements with the aim of transforming slum communities into modern areas. This may force the already marginalised populations in those areas to be relocated to areas far away from their livelihood activities.
The eviction of and subsequent forced migration of marginalised people further away from their livelihood opportunities in compliance with a legal framework will make them more vulnerable, as their previous homes were selected based on its proximity to their economic activities.
Another factor that may affect urban risk reduction efforts even with the presence of legislative framework is the lack of adequate financing. Many governments, cities, communities and individuals must balance their development objectives with their disaster risk reduction considerations. In some countries, disaster risk reduction is recognised as an important part of development but is not given a high priority as scarce resources are likely to be allocated to other needs.
Societies tend to live side by side with hazards. The issue of whether or not a hazard will become a disaster depends largely on the actions of governments, communities, municipalities and individuals. The choices made at these different levels will influence the reduction of risks. A sound Legislative framework is an important medium through which national, regional or municipal governments can influence the choices made for risk reduction as it allows urban areas to localise their responses to hazards. Furthermore, municipal authorities can use regulations and policies to identify the risk accumulation processes, establish rapports with all appropriate stakeholders, and intensify support to organisations responsible for disaster risk. But for disaster risk reduction to be successful, the sound legislative framework must be backed-up with appropriate enforcement mechanisms.
Photo Credit: Ghana Nation, http://www.ghanagrio.com/sites/news/186407-accra-goil-filling-station-fire-over-100-bodies-retrieved-so-far.html