Scrutinising building approvals better late than never

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Rescuers search for trapped people in a collapsed building in Sihanoukville city in Preah Sihanouk province, Cambodia on June 24, 2019. (Xinhua/Li Lay)

To close the stable door after the horse has bolted, aptly describes the Government authorities’ efforts to scrutinize all building permits in the aftermath of the collapse of a under construction seven story building in Sihanoukville nine days ago.

The collapse is a wake-up call. The death of 28 people could have been avoided if basic building codes had been followed and adequate accommodations had been arranged for the workers. The workers lived on the completed floors as construction progressed around them.

The approval process for all construction projects, big or small, in the city or in the provinces should be scrutinized and ensured that all have permits and approvals.

In the capital, taking Boeng Keng Kang 1 as an example, it is horrendous to see buildings mushrooming and popping up like daisies on narrow streets. Construction materials are left by the road side, making it narrow, causing bottle necks and a hazard for vehicles parked anywhere near the construction site.

Do the city planners even consider plot ratio, density, infrastructure accessibility, emergency vehicles accessibility and facilities, fire hydrants and fire fighting inside the building, type of piling for foundation, integrity of concrete, thickness of columns, beams, floors etc?

The incident in Sihanoukville put Cambodia on the map for all the wrong reasons. Even though the governor has stepped down, it is too late as he was the man in charge of a province where there is intense construction infrastructure activities and which had gained world recognition, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The government’s tradition of publicly removing, terminating or admonishing officials in the face of disaster or malfeasance may have been acceptable in the past but should no longer be tolerated by the government and the Prime Minister.

They should be removed from public office and not put in another position. As long as this tradition continues, public accountability will not take place and the public’s confidence in the institutions and government may be eroded over time.

The government’s ensuing decisions made it even worse as many considered it bizarre that officials, who were entrusted with heavy responsibilities had been found “sleeping on the job” and asked to resign or terminated, only to be promoted even while the dust had hardly settled on the collapse site at Sihanoukville.

What message does it send to the investors and more importantly the public at large and the all important electorate? That government officials, who are publicly chastised for incompetence, are then given a promotion. Is this even real? How could the very competent Government and the Prime Minister even publicly announce this?

How would reforms and efforts to enhance government efficiency take root when this practice of name and shame and then promotion takes place all the time and that too in public, complete with statements and an official ceremony?

This makes a mockery on accountability and competence and gives the impression that government officials, ministers, governors will always be spared for wrong doings and maybe their minions may pay the price instead.

The death toll stood at 28 but this was 28 deaths too many. The consequences would have been unimaginable if it were a high rise building, or a building that was completed and occupied. The scenario is unimaginable, even in nightmares. We read about such building and infrastructure tragedies elsewhere. But when it happens in our own backyard, and when the official casually remarks that two warnings had been issued but the contractor did not pay heed is deplorable.

There should be a crackdown on the works and work should come to a standstill until all building regulations are complied with. Why were the workers allowed to reside inside the unfinished building, and why was there a truck on top of the building, as some photos show? Was the structure even fundamentally safe? Did the building have building permits? Were the technical drawings sound to take into consideration dead weight and live weight situations? Was the correct formula for concrete strength used, and did the concrete undergo random lab test to verify its strength integrity? These and many more questions remain unanswered, especially if claims that the building did not have any foundation or earth works at all, is proven to be true.

There are many causes for the collapse of construction buildings such as poor designs, incorrect or inadequate soil investigation reports and type of design adopted to suit the soil conditions, eccentricity of the columns, piles, use of grade of concrete with proper vibration, the type of reinforcement with brittleness, lack of proper lapping at columns and beams and also improper spacing of stirrups as per Is codes, inadequate setting time of concrete, expedited removal of stripping time of staging and shuttering of beams, loading time over columns as well as improper curing.

Any building owner, irrespective of nationality and who avoids hiring an independent structural engineer, a certified project architect and who relies on layman contractors who avoid safety norms would lead to disasters.

What can we learn from this? The first step, besides the investigations into the reasons of the deadly collapse in Sihanoukville is for the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC) to pore through all approved building permits for any building which is made of concrete and or steel, and is multi-story in nature, to verify all of the above and quickly address inadequacies if any are found.

According to literature in Singapore’s national library board and Singapore infopedia, a commission of inquiry which was established to investigate the deadly New World Hotel in Singapore in 1986 could be a stróng reference point.

The commission recommended that the government assumed a more active role in the building industry to avert potential disasters of this nature. Measures recommended include conducting more spot checks on buildings and legislation to enforce maintenance checks every five years. The revised laws also encouraged building owners to adopt more stringent standards in reviewing building plans, testing structural materials and supervising structural works, in addition to certified draughtsman, architects and engineers being involved in a building project.

The fact that another five multi story buildings, reportedly hotels, were found to have been constructed without adequate building permits is chilling. The result of any potential structural weaknesses and the carnage it may bring, are simply unimagnable.

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