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Spate of building collapses challenges​​ the construction authorities’ abilities

Rescuers carrying out a victim found in the rubble of the collapsed building at Kep City. KT/Chor Sokunthea

A spate of building collapses and construction-related deaths in the past six months, along with the declaration that up to 23 already constructed, some occupied, in Sihanoukville alone were to be demolished, draws unwarranted attention to the construction boom in the country.

Contribution to the country’s gross domestic product aside, the booming construction industry is under scrutiny with regard to quality and safety. More questions arise concerning how safe are the buildings being constructed across Cambodia and who has the final approving authority on the structural integrity of any building, especially technical matters such as dead weight and live weight, quality of materials used, curing time for concrete poured, formwork used and so forth.

Generally, any building collapse is attributed to phenomenon characterised by the compromise in the structural integrity of a building’s component elements, resulting in its eventual failure. Structural failure refers to the loss of load carrying capacity of a structural component or structure itself that is a failure of the structural component to perform as designed, or illegal modifications to the approved designs which even includes adding several more floors.

Last Friday’s building collapse in the coastal city of Kep is the third major collapse in six months in which at least 36 people were killed and 23 injured. The most serious accident before this was the building collapse in Sihanoukville in June 2019 which led to 28 deaths along with 26 injured. In December, another building collapse in Siem Reap killed three and injured 13. This one killed 36 and injured 23.

Despite numerous warnings, drive past any construction site anywhere in the country and one can see construction workers working and living within the premises, without sufficient safety measures. Many of them do not have a choice because many construction sites do not have accommodation for their workers, except maybe for the major construction companies at prestigious projects which provide modular two or three floors long houses.

These building collapses can cause serious negative effects and consequences on the building users, investors, stakeholders and the general public. The whole construction industry will be adversely affected.

The above scenario mars the ability of the building industry to perform its role as one of key contributors to national development.  The building collapses which frequently occur frighten future investors, thereby deterring and affecting investors’ confidence.

The key cause of building collapses is structural integrity in addition to pre-construction works such as foundations. Structural integrity is the ability of an item – either a structural component or a structure consisting of many components – to hold together under a load, including its own weight, without breaking or deforming excessively.

Structural failure refers to the loss of structural integrity, or the loss of load-carrying capacity in either a structural component or the structure itself. Structural failure is initiated when a material is stressed beyond its strength limit, causing fracture or excessive deformations; one limit state that must be accounted for in structural design is ultimate failure strength.

In a well-designed system, a localised failure should not cause immediate or even progressive collapse of the entire structure.

However, in Cambodia, it is doubtful that such scientific considerations have been taken into consideration, especially in outlying and sudden boom town areas such as Sihanoukville where multi-storey buildings were popping up like daisies.

Concerning governance issues, the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction at the central level and its sub-offices at the provincial levels must take full responsibility. There are corruption cases relating to the granting of construction licences.

Although there may be tight guidelines on constructions and related sub-decrees available, one wonders whether these are actually seriously respected and implemented at many construction sites and whether the competent authorities or specialists actually do site visits to check and conduct integrity tests on the structures.

More often than not, runners in the various sub-national land management officials will prepare all documents for approval submissions by themselves, based on the guidelines provided by the land or building owner and architect’s designs.

No proper soil investigations are done, no tests on concrete integrity and load tests are carried out and all approvals for the construction of a building, providing it observes basic guidelines such as setback from roads, or road reserves etc are adhered to.

Here is where the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) under the leadership of Mr Om Yen Tieng must seriously investigate corruption cases involved in the granting of construction licenses and the lack of integrity and professionalism in overseeing the construction sites.

The national and sub-national governments must take preventative measures seriously. If the building collapses are allowed to continue, the legitimacy of the regime will be challenged. It is not only an economic and social issue but also a political issue because it reflects the capacity of the government in providing security and safety to its people. Those government officials in charge must be held accountable and disciplined.

Though the Prime Minister has declared that he will not sack or ask for the resignation of Kep Governor Ken Sitha as it is rightly his prerogative, accountability must still be established as arresting the owners of the building alone is insufficient.

Unfortunately, the contractor, who should have been hauled up for questioning and charged perished in the collapse, poetic justice if you must. But surely it would not take this long to establish who the building architects, engineers, quantity and quality surveyors are and haul them up to justice as well?

The governor may not have been responsible for this collapse but the land management officers in Kep surely are accountable because it is their duty to check the integrity of the structure from soil investigations to foundations and erection of the structure.

They must be held accountable and punished. Already there are questions as to why the Governor of Kep was not held accountable when the death toll under his watch was significantly higher than that in Sihanoukville who in any event, resigned as Governor but was promoted, instead of being punished. This does not augur well for the push for better transparency and accountability which the government is trying hard to advocate and implement.

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