News24

Beirut building collapse sparks anger

2012-01-18 16:45

Beirut - The collapse of a building in the Lebanese capital in which 27 people died has put the spotlight on the dismal state of run-down properties across the country that many say are "ticking time bombs".

The tragedy on Sunday saw a six-storey apartment block crumble to the ground within minutes, burying residents, many of them foreign labourers, who had no time to scramble to safety.

The collapse sparked widespread anger and accusations that successive governments had failed to address a problem staring them in the face.

Although there are no firm statistics, the streets of the capital are dotted with derelict buildings lined with cracks, missing balconies and rusting grids which stand in stark contrast to shiny new high rises.

"The problem of unsafe housing is not limited to Beirut - it's spread throughout Lebanon," said Rached Sarkis, a civil engineer and founder of the Lebanese Association of Seismic Hazard Mitigation.

'Haphazard operation'

"Prior to 2005, buildings in Lebanon did not have to meet international standards as the government had not passed a decree to that effect," he said.

"Developers took advantage of the situation to maximise profit at the expense of public safety."

Compounding the problem is the fact that many buildings in Lebanon were built illegally, especially during the 1975 - 1990 civil war. Some owners added new floors to existing apartment blocks with no permits.

"Many buildings were also built prior to the 1971 construction law which requires structural study before building," said MP Mohammed Qabbani, head of the parliamentary committee for public works.

"It's a random, haphazard operation," he added. "The building that collapsed seemed to have no metal grid. It lacked the basic foundations."

And there are many more like it across the city, experts warn.

"It is safe to say all buildings built before 2005 are in urgent need of inspection as are new buildings," Sarkis said.

Rent laws

While Sunday's tragedy brought promises by the government of stricter controls, the problem goes beyond just implementing the law.

Archaic legislation and the lack of low cost or affordable housing have left both landlords and tenants in a double bind.

Failure to ratify new rent laws after the collapse of the Lebanese pound in the 1980s means that tenants with old contracts pay as little as $300 for a three-bedroom apartment in the heart of the capital - annually.

Today, rent for a single room in Beirut runs around $500 per month while two- or three-bedroom apartments sell for a minimum of $500 000.

"What do you tell a landlord who needs $100 000 to renovate his building but makes $5 000 annually in rent?" asked Qabbani.

"And what do you tell families who say the $20 000 they're being offered to leave their homes is insufficient for them to find a new place?

"The problem is not only technical; it is also economic," he added.

Meanwhile, officials are urging residents to alert authorities should they come across any suspect buildings.

"We will immediately deal with concerns over old buildings, some of which are ticking time bombs," said Bilal Hamad, the head of Beirut municipality.

"I ask all residents, whether tenants or owners, to inform the municipality if they have any doubts about the safety of their building."

But some say the state's response was too little too late.

"We've been warning about this issue for a long time," said Sarkis. "But unfortunately, in Lebanon no one budges until after the loss of human life."