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A crumbling city

How shoddy building practices endanger Cairo’s poor.

Rescue workers at the site of a collapsed building in Cairo climb to an adjacent balcony for inspection, May 4, 2003. Rescue workers pulled a small girl alive from the rubble of the apartment block that partly collapsed, killing at least seven people. (Aladin Abdel Naby/Reuters)

CAIRO — It’s not a neighborhood you’ll read about in the guide books. It doesn’t have the bustling charm of Cairo’s old city or the tree-lined promenades of the city's upscale residential neighborhoods.

This is Imbaba, gritty and overcrowded, home to Cairo’s taxi drivers, street vendors and doormen.

In a city of more than 18 million people, few things move very quickly. Yet, as Egypt’s population continues to grow, buildings, neighborhoods and new cities are sprouting like weeds. But not in Imbaba.

The buildings in this neighborhood appear lost to the passage of time. And occasionally, time takes its toll with disastrous results.

“Of course buildings collapse” in Imbaba, said Mohy Karim, a shopkeeper who was born there. “A little while ago a house fell and five people died.”

Building collapses in Egypt have become common occurrences and are typically the result of a largely unregulated construction sector and corner-cutting contractors.

“The government was obliged to turn a blind eye on informal development because it was a social necessity since people needed homes,” said Maher Maksoud, managing director of Sodic, one of Egypt’s largest real estate developers.

The impact of these shaky construction practices is being felt on the street.

“Some places are built with correct foundations. Others are built just by putting bricks together,” Karim said. “They put [buildings] next to each other to balance them. Our place has no constructional foundation. It is only stable because the building next to it is making it stand still.”

One of the most significant infrastructure problems in low-income areas of Cairo is the practice of tacking on more floors than a foundation can bear. A look at any poor area of the city reveals buildings with beams and cables sticking out the top floor, there to accommodate an extra level should the building's owner decide to add one.

In October 2008, a building collapse in Giza, near the pyramids, killed three people. Authorities blamed the contractor who allegedly cut corners when it came to the support beams. That same month, 12 people died in a building collapse in Alexandria soon after the owner had added extra floors.

“They design buildings to easily add extra floors,” said Dina Khashaab, chief architect at Egyptian design firm Eklego. “Of course it’s a problem to add a floor without supporting it.”

With a dearth of affordable housing, an exploding population and little government oversight, contractors have been able to take shortcuts and cash in on poor building practices.

“Certainly there is greed involved,” Maksoud said. “There is always the contractor that uses too little steel, for example.”

But now the government appears to be pushing back. The Unified Building Law was issued in May 2008 to clarify and strengthen building codes in an effort to stop builders from cutting potentially lethal corners in an effort to trim costs.

"We have to set very clear responsibility for the building owner, contractor and architect," said Hussein Il Gibaly, a senior official at the Ministry of Housing. "Now we put responsibility on the designer and the contractor. It used to be just the building owner that took legal responsibility. But he isn't a technical person."

Il Gibaly added that the Unified Building Law has done a lot to shift that burden of responsibility.

With each passing year, the streets of Cairo become more congested. Because of this, high-end housing compounds have begun springing up outside the city. Green oases in the desert, these compounds have attracted many of the city’s wealthy, who are sick of the congestion and eager for space.

“I think people are looking for more space, a cleaner development to raise their kids,” Khashaab said, adding that “part of it is security.”

Furthermore, satellite cities have grown around Cairo, giving middle- and upper-middle-class Egyptians the opportunity to escape the bustle.

“You will see several 3 or 4 million inhabitant cities around Cairo in the next five to 10 years,” Maksoud said, referring to cities still in their infancy, such as 6th of October City and Sheikh Zayed.

The creation of these developments —which have names like Allegria and Palm Hills — and satellite cities has meant that wealth and investment are leaving the center of Cairo. Many worry that Egypt’s capital might suffer if the wealthy continue their urban exodus.

In the meantime, neighborhoods like Imbaba will continue to feel the effects of poor building practices and the exodus of wealth from Cairo.

“I’d love to move out of Imbaba,” said Karim, citing the poor housing situation as his chief concern. “But at the end of the day, it’s the place I know and it’s the place I’m going to be."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/egypt/090129/crumbling-city