Repeated collapses, casualties, and government failure to protect lives in Lebanon (Al Jazeera)

Beirut -

“It is not easy to go to sleep and wake up watching the cracks expand in the columns and ceilings of your house and fear for your children from dying under the rubble, because you are unable to move to a safe house,” this is what Abu Muhammad, the owner of a house in danger of collapsing in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, tells us.

This is how tens of thousands of families in Lebanon live in unsafe homes. In fact, the collapse of buildings on their residents has become part of the Lebanese news routine, and they essentially live with the obsession of the expansion of the war southward between Hezbollah and the Israeli occupation forces.

Choueifat model

About a week ago, a 3-story building collapsed in the Choueifat area in Mount Lebanon Governorate, killing 4 people of Syrian nationality and injuring others.

The building was adjacent to a mountain, part of which had collapsed about 5 years ago. A few days later, another 5-story building collapsed in the Choueifat Desert, but its residents evacuated it only about 10 minutes before the collapse.

Hanna Shedid, Chargé d'Affaires of the Municipality of Choueifat, told Al Jazeera Net that "the condition of the buildings in his town is similar to dilapidated buildings throughout Lebanon."

He points out that municipalities usually send warnings to residents of buildings threatened with collapse, acknowledging their inability to conduct complete and accurate surveys “because they do not have the logistical and financial capabilities to do so.” Shadid acknowledges that there is a violation in the licensing of the last building that collapsed in Choueifat.

4 Syrians were killed and others injured as a result of the collapse of a building in the Choueifat area in the western suburb of Beirut (Anatolia)

Other samples

Partial collapses occur in a large number of buildings throughout the Lebanese geography due to their age, urban fragility, and climate factors.

In mid-October 2023, a 7-story residential building collapsed in the Mansouriya area, east of the capital, Beirut, killing 8 women, injuring others, and displacing about 40 families from the building and its surrounding areas.

The collapse of this building, known as the “Yazbek Building,” raised the issue of the lack of control over the construction of residential communities after it was built in 1986 on unstable ground, according to what one of the survivors, the Lebanese Alexander Koumbakji, tells Al Jazeera Net.

This man laments the loss of the only house his family owns and having to rent another house. He says, "We previously brought an engineer to the building due to cracks in a basic column, and we did some restoration work, but it was not enough to prevent the disaster from occurring."

Kumbakji tells us that this 6-storey building fell vertically, causing complete destruction to the lower, first and second floors. Since that day, no official body has contacted them to provide compensation, and each family only received 30 million liras (about 340) from the Disaster Management Authority after the building fell. One dollar is not enough to pay one month's rent after these families lost their homes.

Alexander, one of the survivors of the Yazbek building: Temporary restorations did not prevent the disaster from occurring (Al Jazeera)

"We are not safe here"

Last week, Amnesty International published a report under the title “We are not safe here...the government is failing the residents of collapsing buildings in Tripoli,” one year after the earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria in February 2023, the aftershocks of which reached Tripoli, where thousands of families live. In buildings in danger of collapsing, the authorities only received “evacuation warnings.”

The Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, in coordination with the General Directorate of Civil Planning in the Ministry of Works, bears primary responsibility for the file in cooperation with the Engineers Syndicate, in addition to Parliament’s legislative responsibility for building and restoration laws that are more appropriate for public safety.

In 2005, the Public Safety Decree for Buildings and Establishments was issued, and it was amended in 2012, but it did not include the application of public safety conditions and principles to existing buildings before its issuance, while buildings that are more than 25 years old constitute 84.4% of the main residences, according to Abeer Saksouq, architect and executive director. In "Public Works Studio".

- Part of the Fawz building collapsed in the #Basta area, and the building was evacuated of residents, and according to information, the building is likely to collapse #Lebanon

- Ziad El Masri (@ziadalmassri) February 20, 2024

Demolition policy

In an interview with Al Jazeera Net, Saksouk points out the enormous repercussions of the crisis on residential stability in society, because tens of thousands of families live in buildings at risk of collapsing and have no other options. The architect links the recent incidents to the deteriorating reality of the urban environment due to state policies since the 1950s.

Saksouk spoke about what she calls the "demolition policy" that the state adopted as an urban planning approach, as a tool to create a network of highways, where it demolished entire neighborhoods, evacuated residents, and divided Lebanese cities according to class.

As for the building laws issued since the 1970s - according to the architect - they “encouraged investment and the logic of exception in civil planning, and resulted in massive destruction of buildings and the urban fabric, and the absence of a culture of rehabilitation.”

In parallel, the state took problematic measures that contradict the principle of public safety, as it allowed, through the issuance of Law No. 6/80, to increase the investment factor and add a floor to any existing building, even if it included unlicensed parts, according to it.

The chaos over 16 years has led to "an increased amount of construction at the expense of public safety."

She says, "The state failed to provide affordable housing options, which led people to live in floors that were gradually added to existing buildings without studying their durability or strengthening them."

Today, the proportion of the population of informal neighborhoods amounts to 50% of the total proportion of the city’s population - according to the engineer - “but the authorities do not acknowledge their existence, and do not include within their visions how to rehabilitate the urban environment in them to become safe.”

Saksouq enumerated other reasons that lead to buildings cracking and collapsing, including:

  • Damage from repeated Israeli wars.

  • Previous Civil War battles.

  • Repercussions of the port bombing.

  • Natural conditions, such as the strong earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey.

  • Land and soil sliding and torrential floods.

  • Climate change: The heavy amounts of rain in a short time and the floods that Lebanon has witnessed recently pose a threat to the infrastructure and durability of buildings, especially in coastal cities.

The engineer talks about four types of dilapidated neighborhoods whose residents suffer from economic, political, and social hardships:

  • Palestinian refugee camps

    : These are neighborhoods established between 1948 and 1951 to house Palestinian refugees. They were established on lands rented by UNRWA and turned into neighborhoods outside the management of the Lebanese authorities.

  • Informal areas

    : These are neighborhoods that have developed informally since the 1940s on the outskirts of the city to house marginalized population groups, meaning that their construction does not follow ownership, classification, and construction systems. The percentage of residents of informal neighborhoods in 2018 was estimated at 61% of the total number of city residents in Lebanon.

  • Neighborhoods developed as permanent housing for refugees

    : These are areas that were historically developed as housing sites for Armenian or Syriac refugees in the pre-independence era, and turned into densely populated areas with low-rise buildings.

Since the end of the war (1989), a neoliberal phase has occurred, according to Saksouk, during which “successive governments facilitated the working conditions of investors and increased the percentages allowed for construction, which affected the engineering profession and subjected it to the authority of construction merchants.”

To combat the building collapse crisis, Saksouk presents several proposals, including:

  • Announcing a shelter/alternative housing plan for families displaced by the collapse of buildings or the risk of their collapse.

  • Launching the process of re-examining all buildings built between 1990 and 2005, a file for which the Ministry of Works and Municipalities is responsible. Municipalities must also require owners to issue a study of the durability of their buildings.

  • Develop a comprehensive approach to rehabilitate and restore dilapidated neighborhoods in major cities.

Source: Al Jazeera