Unless Regulations are Enforced More Buwelikada Tragedies will Recur

Unless Regulations are Enforced More Buwelikada Tragedies will  Recur

In Buwelikada, Kandy, the collapse of a five-storied residence resulted in the untimely death of a weeks old infant and her young parents, on Sunday, September 20.

The victims were not residents of the house that collapsed, but neighbors, whose house was partly buried by the rubble.

Reports and photos of the collapse are raising more questions than answers as rumours of the events that led to the collapse spread.  But what is certain is that a building, said to be the home of a fairly well-known and well to do family, which stood above all others built below it, is now just rubble and debris.   Its victims, a young couple, a businessman, said to be the owner of the hotel located just below the building that collapsed, his lawyer wife and their six weeks old daughter.

As a country we will rant and rave about the tragic end of a young family.  Many would have attended their funeral, whether they knew them or not, out of curiosity, anger, sympathy or whatever.  Neighbours are in shock, and they claim the owners of the building that collapsed failed to warn other residents before they left.  Others believe the owners would have moved their personal belongings and items earlier, pointing out that such objects are missing from the scene.   But all of that will be determined at an investigation into the incident.

Unfortunately, it is only in the wake of such a tragedy that officials and experts gather to inspect and investigate how or why this building was constructed in this location in the first place.  Central Province Governor Lalith Gamage who visited the scene the day of the tragedy and ordered a probe into the incident was also quoted in the media stating that immediate action was to be taken to ascertain whether the construction industry is adhering to the required guidelines when putting up new buildings.   Stating that there were many illegally constructed buildings in the Kandy area, he said that a survey of all such buildings and those posing high risk will be carried out shortly.

But, the building that collapsed, owned by the Lewke family, was built in 2006.   Stricter regulations which also requires approval from the National Building Research Organisation ( NBRO) had been introduced in 2011, soon after a similar collapse of a building in another area of Kandy.

Currently, the NBRO, the Urban Development Authority and the Police are all investigating the Buwelikada incident.

We now learn that the dwelling in question had been built on a valley right where there had been a stream that flows down from the Udawattekelle Sanctuary.  The soft soil, according to Senior Professor, Atula Seneviratne, of the University of Peradeniya who spoke to the media at the time of the collapse, is not the most conducive for such construction; rather, he opines that the foundation should have been built on the layer of rock found below the surface.

Whichever year it was built, it is now clear that some basic safeguards may have been overlooked.

Indeed, Kandy today, is not the city it was in days bygone, with its picturesque mountains and pristine greenery.  Rather, it has turned into an ugly brick and mortar jungle, with building upon building crowding the mountains.  It is surprising that more such tragedies similar to the Buwelikada one has not happened before.

Just as much as the mountains are being lopped off to make way for concrete structures,  many areas of this country are now dotted with apartment buildings.  Some are located in areas where there is hardly room for two vehicles to pass with ease.   But the more important question is whether all of these apartment building are adhering to building codes and other requirements that must be met for such edifices.

For instance, do the apartments all come with service elevators which enable residents to move their heavy furniture etc. in?   This writer can vouch that at least two apartment buildings in the upmarket residential areas of Colombo do not have such a facility, leave alone an elevator large enough to accommodate a stretcher;   when a friend, a senior citizen fell and injured her hip, the stretcher could not be fitted into the elevator, resulting in the lady being carried down the steps of the building on the stretcher.  In the other incident, a dead body had to be strapped to a chair and brought down by the undertakers, again because the stretcher could not be accommodated in the elevator.

In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Janaka Seneviratne, a Chartered Professional Engineer has pointed out that Sri Lanka lacks a National Buildings Code and also that our regulatory and compliance systems are far from satisfactory.

According to the NBRO website, they and the Construction Industry Development Authority (CIDA) are in the process of developing a building code for Sri Lanka, with World Bank and local partner expertise.  In July of 2019 the governments of Sri Lanka and the Maldives had hosted the Building Regulatory Capacity Assessment (BRCA) Action Planning Workshops, in collaboration with the World Bank, local partners such as the University of Moratuwa, CIDA, UDA , Ministry of Housing the Colombo Municipal Council, Riyan Private Ltd. Maldives and the University College London EPICentre  etc. to prioritise recommended actions and to validate findings in a bid to strengthening the building regulatory framework.

As reported by the World Bank, in the case of Sri Lanka the following had been identified as priority areas:

  • Developing and implementing the new Sri Lanka Building Code, locally relevant in terms of hazards, design, and construction practices.
  • Reducing gaps and overlaps in legislation, regulation, and institutional mandates while strengthening institutional capacities.
  • Improving the building approval process and enhance the capacity of local authorities through training programmes.

According to an NBRO official, Sri Lanka is currently awaiting permission from The International Code Council to adapt the International Building Code to suit Sri Lanka’s standards and requirements.

All of these actions are praiseworthy, though one is tempted to ask whether even the introduction of such a code would ensure standards will be maintained.  It is not that Sri Lanka has been putting up building all these decades without laws and regulations that must be adhered to.  A certificate of compliance would be required to move into a properly completed building and approval must be obtained prior to embarking on any type of construction.

The Lewke family insists they obtained the proper approvals for their building.  But, collapse it did, and now the authorities must find out how and who allowed it to be built on that particular location.  Who certified the building materials used and were those of the required standard?  What of the neighbouring buildings, also on the same slope?

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka was quick to write to the Acting Inspector General of Police requesting an immediate investigation into the incident.  Motivated by the fact that  one of the dead, Achala Ekanayake was a lawyer and a member of the BASL, it said that apart from the fact that the deceased was one of its members, it was also concerned that investigations into such incidents in the past had not been conducted properly or adequately citing a similar building collapse in Wellawatte.

Certainly, the nation is still in shock over the Buwelikade collapse, but will, within weeks forget all about it.   And we will continue to circumvent regulations and put up buildings that do not meet the required standards or follow established regulations.    When the Governor claims that he believes there are many illegal constructions in Kandy, he is saying that even after the introduction of stricter regulations introduced by the NBRO in 2011, implementing authorities have paid lip-service to them.

It is a well-known fact that Sri Lankans prefer to find short-cuts to get anything done; be it a driver’s license or a building permit, and in the process, we are happy to make financial or other forms of gratifications to officers who are more than willing to accept them and place their stamp of approval.

Investigating authorities now point to the various gaps that have occurred such as the size of the steel rods used in constructing the Buwelikada five-storey complex.  That is 14 years too late, certainly for the family that lost their loved ones.    The Director General of the NBRO told the media that the responsibility lies with the relevant accredited engineer to ensure the plan is followed properly, and take the blame if he or she has not done so.

Engineer Seneviratne  states that the unless the National Building Code is made a legal document,  holding whoever is responsible  accountable may not be possible.

If approving authorities have shirked their duties, will justice then be served?    Will, as has become the practice, responsibility be passed from officer to officer, or implementing authorities?   Will, at least this be a lesson to all Sri Lankans to learn to play by the rules, not call in favours or bribe officials, and keep ourselves and our neighbours safe?

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