Opinion and Analysis

Why slum disaster was avoidable

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By Mary Kimonye

Posted  Thursday, September 15  2011 at  00:00

Our heartfelt condolences go to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in what is likely to be Kenya’s worst oil disaster. Scores of them were not aware of the danger lurking in their Sinai village neighbourhood, and woke up to a rainy morning only to be engulfed in flames. This is like a terrible dream that keeps coming back.

Kenyans who have followed similar incidents over the last eight years or so, are grappling with the traumatic aftermath. To their credit news reporters have gone to great lengths to ask the same question over and over again… “Will Kenyans ever learn?”

In 1998 a tanker rolled into a maize farm in Sidindi, Ugenya. Early this year a fuel tanker overturned in Kisumu spilling its contents onto the road. Again residents rushed to the scene to draw fuel from the crippled truck.

The Sinai Village disaster has claimed over 100 lives, some of whom were not in the know. However, there were Kenyans who picked up containers and rushed to the trench. Many questions go unanswered regarding the behaviour of Kenyans when such disasters strike.

Is it poverty, greed, lack of a value system or just a case of bad attitude. Should we not be running in the opposite direction when a tanker rolls and spills fuel? Is it that Kenyans never learn even from the horribly catastrophic results of these seemingly ignorant behaviour?

The news about the fire made headlines across major global news outlets and will continue to do so in the short term. From an image and reputation point of view, this tragic event has a direct impact on the ranking of Kenya as an investment destination.

Consider the preliminary information surrounding the accident. Aging fuel pipes, encroachment on land reserve meant for use by the Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) and deliberate acts of defiance by residents, seemingly not respecting the law and basic safety principles.

Even after an eviction order was issued by the Kenya Pipeline Company in 2008 the squatters refused to leave. Perhaps political expediency superseded safety concerns. Now sadly people have paid the price with their lives.

Kenya’s ability to regulate safety standards and mitigate potential industrial hazards is seriously called into question. Investors looking to invest in the country will definitely remember these unfortunate events when considering Kenya. The behaviour of the Kenyans who always dash to siphon fuel from tankers instead of helping the victims points to a bigger underlying problem of character.

We cannot predict what will happen tomorrow, but we can certainly take preventive action with reasonable success. Informal settlements have mushroomed along the railway lines in Muthurwa, Mukuru and Kibera and other places. The “squatters” seem to be unaware of the risk besetting them should a train derail. The Kenya Railways management has time and again made spirited efforts to get these “squatters” away from the railway reserve with limited success. Are we going to shed genuine tears when such tragedies occur?

It is plausible that Kenyans no longer subscribe to the traditional values that kept the society going and may need to refresh their belief system. The National Economic Social Council (NESC) and the Brand Kenya Board have developed a set of values which by all means reflect the African way of doing things.

These values are expected to among other things, create a national identity for Kenyans and develop a set of shared beliefs, while encouraging solidarity. A value system comes in handy especially when a society has to deal with challenges.

Kimonye is the CEO of the Brand Kenya Board.