Tuesday, September 13, 2011

mud vs. sheetmetal

Five more people have died in the wake of the oil leak inferno that burned through the Sinai squatter community in Nairobi. The disaster is mind-boggling and awful. But it has left me wondering about a simple but little remarked fact: As the picture of Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga touring the community shows, Sinai was built mostly of corrugated metal--a cheap and incredibly time- and labor-saving building material. A stick frame and some rolls of steel and a community can be created in minutes. Older squatter communities -- Kibera, for instance -- feature homes built mostly from mud, which must be dug, and mixed with water to the right consistency, and built up by someone who knows what they are doing. Mud is a better insulator--keeping homes warm during cool seasons and cool during warm times. Steel, by contrast, conducts the heat--and metal homes often become overheated in sunny weather. I'm wondering if a community made from mud or brick would have fared better in warding off the flames, and how many of the burn injuries were from the flames and how many were inflicted as people attempted to flee their superheated sheetmetal houses.

Monday, September 12, 2011

river of bodies

Tragedy in Kenya's capital as an oil pipeline in a squatter community ruptured early Monday morning, and turned deadly soon thereafter when it ignited into a fireball, killing 100 and sending hundreds more to the hospital.

Sinai is a small squatter community in Nairobi's industrial area, not far from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The oil pipeline, which slices across the community and apparently runs to the airport, sprung a huge leak, sending oil cascading down the community's streets and into the nearby Ngong River. Many community residents headed towards the leak, to gather some of the valuable fuel. Somehow, the oil ignited--the New York Times reports the blaze took hold because cinders from a nearby garbage fire blew over in the wind, though other sources speculate about different causes. But whatever happened, the blast of flame was deadly.

The Nation newspaper reports that a loose gasket in the pipeline was responsible for the oil leak, and notes that "There were two different accounts of the cause of the inferno. While some of the survivors said the petrol from the pipeline came with the fire, others said it was lit by a man smoking a cigarette." The paper also offers a 2 minute TV news report from the scene.

The Standard reports that oil pipelines have a lifespan of about 25 years, while this one had been in continual service for 33 years, adding that and a decade-old study commissioned by the public/private commission that manages the pipeline had concluded that it was obsolete--but that the commission rejected the report and instead expanded its usage. Just a few weeks back, the government's energy secretary called for it to be replaced within three years.

The Guardian also has details, and a short video.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Accra politicos vow demolition & eviction

The political class of Accra, Ghana, have vowed to evict 80,000 people from the squatter community called Sodom and Gomorrah. "Whether or not the people have their homes there does not matter, the final decision is that it has to go.” the municipality's Public Relations Officer, Numo Blafo, told My Joy Online.

It seems as if the municipality doesn't understand why people come to the city. As stalwart anti-demolition advocate Farouk Braimah, from Peoples Dialogue on Human Settlement, explained, "it is income that brings people to the city and not shelter."

In other words, demolishing a community doesn't stop people from coming to Accra and certainly doesn't make the housing crisis go away. It just pushes poor and working people further out of town. That's urban removal not urban renewal.

when the city owns vacant buildings

The Squatters Advis­ory Service in the UK submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Camden Council in London seeking a complete list of vacant properties in the area. The group has now won a court judgment in its favor -- a decision one City Councillor described as "lunacy."

But Paul Reynolds, a spokesman for Squash, a squatters' rights group, makes a lot of sense when he explains the decision: “It is about accountability. They will no longer be able to hide the extent of empty, publicly-owned housing in Camden. And if nothing is done to fix, repair or fill an empty home, homeless people can move in until this is done, which is a good thing. If Camden does not want this to happen, they should put people in these properties.”

That's a bright idea. Are you listening, Detroit (and all the other American cities with large patches of abandonment)?

The Camden New Journal offers the details.