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Disaster prevention: a national folly?

Fathmath Shaahunaz
23 September 2019, MVT 12:03
During the funeral held in HDh.Hanimaadhoo for the five victims who lost their lives after the speedboat they were travelling in capsized in late August 2019. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU
Fathmath Shaahunaz
23 September 2019, MVT 12:03

The last few days, in the immediate aftermath of the most devastating fire incident to shock the capital city of Male’, saw a flurry of state-initiated activity. From the president's order to a parliamentary emergency motion, the people bore witness to the government’s swift call to action, mobilising efforts to establish fire prevention measures, and ensure 'never again'.

However, ‘call to action’ is perhaps better rephrased as ‘call to delayed action’, and the phrase ‘never again’ has become a repetitive, moot, empty promise broken by every administration elected by the people with hopes that this time, maybe this time, things will be different.

The raging fire that broke out in Henveiru ward of Male' City on September 20, 2019. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU

Things are not different, as the blaze that broke out in a chemical storage facility in Henveiru ward proved on the night of September 20. The fire burned down the godown, and set aflame four other warehouses and seven residential buildings, displacing over 400 people and taking the life of one woman.

“Why does someone always have to die before anyone takes action in this country?”

The question, painfully blunt, is posed by a young woman scrolling through the news on her mobile phone, the emotions on her face an odd clash of anger, sadness and resignation.

It is a common expression for many a jaded Maldivian, for her harsh inquiry, directed at no one and everyone in equal capacity, highlights one of the realities behind the Maldives’ sunny paradise-on-earth facade. The developments we witnessed after the fire that raged for over four hours, are indicative of a dangerous pattern that every Maldivian has experienced - that of a country which scrambles to slap on a bandaid after the wound is inflicted and, oftentimes, festered.

The inferno in Henveiru ward is the latest in a string of seemingly unrelated incidents, all of which share the common denominator: tragedy before safety. Severe injuries and loss of innocent lives that need never have been in danger in the first place, had sufficient preventive measures been in effect. A notion that is hardly rocket science, if one may be forgiven the cliche, isn’t it?

A glance at local headlines brings to sharp scrutiny the frequency with which this fatal pattern has emerged over the past year alone.

The fatal ‘too little, too late’ pattern

On August 29, a speedboat travelling from Nolhivaranfaru to Hanimaadhoo in Haa Dhaalu Atoll capsized due to rough weather, killing five of the ten people on board. It marked the most tragic marine accident in the recent history of Maldives, and the deaths prompted discourse on the lack of marine safety, namely the issue of life vests. Current laws stipulate vessels must carry life jackets on board, but thus far there are no regulations to enforce wearing of vests.

During the funeral held in HDh.Hanimaadhoo for the five victims who lost their lives after the speedboat they were travelling in capsized in late August 2019. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU

Following this accident, a resolution was submitted to the parliament on September 4, seeking to mandate wearing life jackets while travelling at sea, in addition to other safety measures. While the parliament still has not reached a decision, many civilians noted that concerns over this very issue were already raised, multiple times, in the past.

Before the speedboat incident, arguably the most prominent case to grip the public was the death of Rawshan Jian. The 7-year-old Bangaldeshi girl passed away on December 17, 2018, after she was struck by a falling cement bag from a construction site in Male’.

Her shocking death spurred an onslaught of public censure against the government, over the poor enforcement of safety practices at construction sites in the greater Male’ region. Under fire, the authorities appeared to pull out all the stops; the permit of the site’s contractor was temporarily suspended, the government launched inspections of all construction sites in the capital, and the Civil Court ordered the state to enact all pending regulations under the Construction Act, including the Building Code, by March 2019.

Rawshan Jian: she passed away after she was struck by a falling cement bag in a construction site in December 2018

Despite the state jolting into action after Jian’s passing, citizens of the greater Male’ are yet to see much improvement. While the Planning Ministry implemented an amended construction safety protocol in late January this year, the public is yet to hear progress of the pending Act regulations and Building Code. In the meantime, there appears to be no end to the list of construction site accidents. Two expatriate workers were killed, one struck by a falling slab of rock and the other by a jumbo bag, in February and July this year respectively, while multiple other incidents resulted in various injuries to workers and, in a few cases, passersby.

However, dishearteningly, the parliament rejected an emergency motion filed in July, which concerned the negligence of construction companies in implementing safety protocols, and sought to pose responsibility on relevant state institutions to provide solutions.

Another such instant of delayed action was the imposition of state-mandated helmets for motorcyclists travelling the Sinamale’ Bridge route, implemented on March 10, 2019. This regulation came into existence in the wake of numerous near-fatal accidents smearing the tarmac of the landmark bridge and its adjoining highway, since their unveiling on September 7, 2018.

Prior to the new rule, Maldives Police Service revealed late last December, that 42 accidents were reported on the bridge since its inauguration. By mid-February 2019, the number had escalated to 167, with 37 accidents reported on the bridge and 61 on the highway. The police estimated that an accident occurred on Sinamale’ Bridge almost every day, before the helmet regulation was implemented. On September 8 this year, Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation Aishath Nahula assured that the number of accidents decreased significantly after the use of helmets was enforced.

The motorbike involved in an accident on Sinamale' bridge, in January 2019.

On another traffic-related note, the road accident on February 13, in which a woman suffered brain haemorrhage after a taxi driver ploughed into her while she was on a zebra crossing, also sheds light on how this dangerous pattern appears to be ingrained in the general Maldivian mindset. Abruptly, it appeared that vehicles were suddenly slowing down for pedestrians crossing the road - a sadly “rare phenomenon” that not only this writer experienced firsthand as well, but should in fact be the “norm”, as the selectively unheeded traffic regulations would tell you.

A phenomenon that, with every passing day, appears to be dulling as people’s recollections of the terrible accidents, which spurred them to think twice and act accordingly, are buried under the fog of time.

Rest assured, this too is part of the pattern. While we have seen governments jump up to make bold gestures in the aftermath of calamities, we have just as much witnessed such actions fade into the background, not to be heard of again - until the next time.

Same old “We’re working on it”

The above-mentioned events are but a few, prominent examples of the tragedy-before-safety ailment afflicting the Maldives.

In all of these cases, preventive measures concerning marine, construction and road safety were demanded by the people since long back, and the current issue of establishing adequate fire safety systems is a similarly worn-out topic.

More importantly, it is one that, just like the rest, should have been properly addressed, implemented and already in effect - before the authorities’ complacency and inaction caused injury or claimed innocent lives, as it did this past weekend; as it had in all the other incidents.

The police, military and firefighters work to control the raging fire that broke out in Henveiru ward on September 20, 2019. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU

After the latest battle was won by the joint efforts of the police, military, firefighters and public, the people of Maldives listened as President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih ordered the swift relocation of chemical storages to the nearby garbage island of Thilafushi in order to prevent reoccurrence. They watched the parliament debate on establishing proper, and as of today still lacking, fire safety systems in the congested capital. They listened to Minister of Defence Mariya Ahmed Didi’s assurance that the regulations on chemical importation and storage would be gazetted within the week, while Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) launched operations to inspect 126 warehouses presently used as chemical storage facilities in Male’.

All of these can be paraphrased into five words for the weary ears of the common folk: “We are working on it”. It is the phrase that comes before ‘never again’, and then again after, when the latter promise is inevitably broken.

“Same old, same old,'' responds the tired citizen, who recognises the vicious cycle.

It is a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the victims directly affected by these events, that the damages incurred, the injuries sustained, and above all, the lives lost, could and should have been prevented.

The presence of godowns, especially those housing hazardous substances, has been a cause for concern for years in the cramped capital of Maldives. The previous government, during the presidency of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, had sought to transfer all warehouses to the Industrial Village being developed on the southwestern coast of Male’. While the current administration has not disclosed details of its plans for the Village since it came into power in November 2018, its total inaction in assessing and relocating chemical storages prior to Friday’s tragic incident, bears a certain amount of responsibility.

There is also much to be addressed in the lacking areas of modern equipment and technology provided for the firefighting unit in Male’. Friday’s blaze was notably brought under control only after the arrival of Velana International Airport’s foam fire truck, along with the airport’s Fire and Rescue Services crew.

Several people are also beseeching the government to establish fire hydrants around the capital and use ground water for firefighting, as invaluable time is lost in drawing water from the sea, half a kilometre away from the city’s centre. Certain politicians also highlighted the lack of budget allocated for such matters, especially noting the importance of bringing in aerial firefighting helicopters and drones which are imperative measures for a city like Male’, where buildings are crowded together and roads narrow; a fire hazard in the making, as many have pointed out.

Memories are still fresh of the fire at Coastline Hardware in April 2016, which had spread to three other buildings, and at the time was the largest fire incident in Male’. More than three years later, the evident complacency of the state in preventing such disasters from occurring again is inexcusable. The fact that the most recent flames engulfed more than twice as many buildings and claimed a life, is unacceptable.

It is high time that we, as a government and as a nation, actively step up and maintain preventive efforts, to ensure safe living and protection of life, instead of squabbling to smooth over damages and shamefully mumble apologies in the face of needless disasters. We have reached a point where a cure for this tragedy-before-safety ailment is not only long overdue, but of the most critical importance.

It is time for ‘never again’ to truly become ‘never again’.

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