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December 19, 2018

JKIA Fire Was A Spotlight On Disaster Management

Use of the foam to put of the fire by Kenya Pipeline saved the day at JKIA Photo/KARUGA WA NJUGUNA
Use of the foam to put of the fire by Kenya Pipeline saved the day at JKIA Photo/KARUGA WA NJUGUNA

Here is what surprised me: A friend who I have a forest-and-foal play date with this weekend and who was due to arrive in Kenya on Friday might actually make it – he sent me a text that he had boarded his flight as scheduled.

And that another friend, scheduled to leave the country Friday morning at 4am, also sent me a text that he was boarding. It is quite impressive how quickly the authorities were able to pull together a plan to get the air traffic moving again.

 No doubt security checks are less stringent now, and now doubt it will be a headache for travelers to get through immigration formalities.

But thankfully it looks like the airport will not be shut for weeks and there will be some sort of business as usual shortly. As I write this, investigations are still going on to determine what the cause of the fire was: arson? terrorist arson? or just an accident?

 Here is what did not surprise me quite as much: That JKIA went up in flames spectacularly after the fire could not be contained.

 The AP wrote this: ‘The officials said first responders stole electronics and money from an ATM. Another official said that police guarding the site overnight attempted to a take a safe from a bank in the burned-out arrivals hall, which also houses several foreign currency exchange shops.’ Ever on the ball, those guardians of the law.

 And also this: ‘Firefighters were desperately short of equipment Wednesday. The airport has fire trucks but some were not filled with water and personnel couldn't be found to drive others. At one point while battling the blaze men in government uniforms lined up to pass buckets of water to fight the fire.’ A journalist friend posted a picture of fire fighters with buckets. Yes, really.

 In the Standard, ‘Counties’ managing editor Kipkoech Tanui wrote about JKIA’s toilets: cramped cubicles, small, in the past often without water or attendants to keep them clean, and so on.

I thought this was a perfect reflection of the overall problem, JKIA wa not run properly. Not that this was an accidental deterioration that just happened in recent weeks.

There has been repeat mention that JKIA had been built back in the day for 2.5m passengers, and its current traffic far exceeds this, has exceeded it for many years.

 ‘Back in the day’ was, literally, decades ago, so this is a bit like the highway through Nairobi. It has been crystal clear for years (decades?) that it is not sensible to send all of East and Central Africa’s goods traffic through the capital by road, and that Nairobi needs a bypass. Which is being built, and the airport expansion is under way, but good grief, it’s 2013 now. None of this is rocket science – roads and airports have been built elsewhere before. But all of this has been held back by weak, incompetent and corrupt institutions. And it is a no-brainer that a facility of JKIA’s size and importance has, simply has to have functioning equipment to prevent, warn of, and extinguish fire.

 The JKIA fire was also spotlight on Kenya’s disaster management capacities. What makes this incident different, of course, is that it affects a key, strategic piece of transport infrastructure: for business travellers, for tourism, for exports. The pipeline fire, or the downtown supermarket fire, didn’t get the same response, even though many people died.

The pipeline fire also had politicians traipsing through the rubble, but where were the emergency troops to rebuild houses in a few days?

Nairobi, the capital city, with 3-4m inhabitants, has, to my knowledge, not functioning public fire-engine fleet worth mentioning. Let that thought sink in for a second. It is terrifying.

 Or take a regularly recurring disaster: famine. Famine is, Amartya Sen famously said, political, not an act of nature. If a country has not yet managed to ensure that the vast majority of its citizens can pursue some gainful activity that will keep them alive and reasonably comfortable, then there should be early warning systems and measures to keep people from beginning to starve in the first place.

Not the usual strategy of ignoring all warnings, denying there was any famine, and eventually reaching the begging bowl round the international community (presumably because any spare cash has been spent on MPs’ cars, houses, allowances, flags and so on).

 Mind you, in all of this, preventing disasters (fire, explosions, famine, landslides) in the first place would be preferable. None of this can be achieved without competent institutions.

It is not a matter of the president ordering that unpreparedness for fire shall henceforth cease. Or that corruption at the Mombasa port shall henceforth cease.

And this is the big, depressing challenge: every single person who benefitted from such systems not being in place (whether they make money from extracting bribes at the port, or steal money from the city council through ghostworker contracts or fake supplier contracts, or steal money off bungled procurement of ferries, fire engines, or steal money from airport construction contracts, etc) will resist this tooth and nail.

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