Weak structures

16 Sep 2020


The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

RECENTLY, two buildings in Karachi’s Korangi and Lyari areas collapsed within 72 hours of each other. There were fatalities and injuries. In one case, press reports said the building’s basement remained immersed in water after the recent rains, damaging the foundations. In the other, careless excavation was reported as a reason for the collapse.

There are other buildings, with a similar profile, that have also collapsed in the city of late. People have mourned their dead. Many households have lost lifelong assets. Inquiries have been initiated to ascertain the reasons but the reports have not been made public so far. Unfortunately, the authorities focus on the immediate causes; the larger reasons have to be studied.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Karachi continued to expand towards its peripheries. Many informal and planned settlements attracted the working class that acquired dwellings in a gradual manner often with help from informal land suppliers. People built basic structures on such plots.

The availability of affordable transport and manageable travel time were key factors in making residential choices. In recent years, public transport options have dwindled. There are long waits and higher fares. Commuters have to change two to three buses or common rickshaws. Many have opted to live closer to the city centre or their place of work, thus intensifying the pressure on informal settlements.

Buildings have been falling like ninepins in Karachi.

Single-storey house owners have been approached by petty contractors and investors to either sell their property at relatively higher prices or enter into a ‘business deal’ for the construction of a multistoried building with incentives thrown in such as a share in rents, additional accommodation or allocation of some commercial space if the structure allows for it. Constructing multistoried buildings on plots of 45, 60, 80, 120, 180, 200 and 240 square yards is common. No architect or engineer is usually involved. Punjab Colony, Shah Rasool Colony, Neelum Colony, Upper and Lower Gizri, and different sub-neighbourhoods of Lyari, Orangi and Baldia Town have thousands of these.

With no common mechanism to oversee levels of drainage and sewerage, water accumulates due to various obstructions. Stagnant water is a common cause for the weakening of an already fragile structure. Changes in interior spaces, shifting of internal block masonry, drilling, etc also weaken it. Excavations for adjacent construction can be dangerous in such localities. There are no checks.

Despite many laws to regulate building practices, the inefficiency of monitoring agencies, adulterated construction material, lack of technical knowhow, errors and discrepancies in the supply chain of material/ building services, and the failure to report defects are on full display. Few resources are spent on the construction of compound walls in low-income settlements as residents consider it an unnecessary burden. Often, these walls do not have any foundation or basic reinforcement. Rain, seepage and spillage from local drains as well as collisions cause instant damage. Young children normally play close to walls as they draw psychological comfort from their proximity to a shelter. They fall prey to accidents.

The Karachi Transformation Plan has been announced. A reasonable provision of the funds must be allocated for rehabilitation of unplanned settlements. It is estimated that over 700 such settlements exist accommodating some 10 million people. A comprehensive survey covering the condition of homes, services and infrastructure, tenure status, possibility of regularisation and provision of amenities is necessary. Building typologies, strength of structures, existence of hazards and harmful enterprises, physical densities and residential occupancy status must also be examined.

A district-level re­­ha­­bilitation resource centre must be set up under the auspices of the Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority to initiate this exercise. In-house technical technical expertise is needed to develop retrofitting solutions for weak and damaged buildings — starting from those settlements which are either regularised or targeted for regularisation.

Temporary accommodation and facilities may be developed to house those who live in completely dilapidated buildings. NGOs such as the Urban Resource Centre, OPP and TTRC have the experience of working in such neighbourhoods. If appropriate options are designed, rehabilitation can be done without subsidy.

Meanwhile, the regulatory mandate of the Sindh Building Control Authority may be revisited as, at the moment, the SBCA can only exercise its jurisdiction over planned neighbourhoods and areas notified for such control. A special provision can be created to ensure that these buildings and structures receive advice and assistance for retrofitting, strengthening and rehabilitation before any regulatory check is applied to them.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2020