Sat Aug 30 06:21:11 SAST 2014

Mall collapse raises fears of future tragedy

By Sapa-AFP  | Nov 15, 2012 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

The deadly collapse of a six-storey shopping centre in Ghana's capital Accra due to construction flaws, has raised fears of more such tragedies in the West African boom town.

The November 7 incident, in which 14 people died, could have been far worse. A rescue operation by Ghanaian authorities, an Israeli team and even workers from a nearby construction site managed to pull at least 75 people from the rubble alive.

Construction cranes dot the skies of the city, which anchors what is, at least on paper, one of the world's fastest growing economies. Cash flow into the city is expected to increase in the coming years as oil production rises.

But as new apartment buildings and business complexes continue to shoot up, some have voiced concern that contractors are sacrificing safety for speed in a country seen as a relative success story in often turbulent West Africa.

"Land is becoming very expensive in Accra. Every year the price almost doubles," said Emmanuel Degbotse, a structural and bridge engineer who is part of the team probing the collapse of the Melcom shopping centre.

To maximise value, developers are increasingly looking to build taller structures and authorities at the Accra Municipal Assembly do not have the manpower to properly assess every proposal, he told AFP.

"It would be impossible to assess every plan," he said, charging that some contractors bribe city officials to secure speedy approval.

Magnus Quarshie, vice president of the Ghana Institution of Engineering, also serving on the Melcom investigation panel, said the collapsed building probably did not meet basic construction standards.

"That's why we have this type of pancake collapse. Usually, you would have expected this (with) a fatigued building. Part of it would (have) collapsed," Quarshie said. "But this is unusual."

Both Quarshie and Degbotse said tests have revealed that the concrete used at Melcom was too weak to support the structure.

Concrete slabs caved in on the Melcom building employees as they held morning prayers before opening to the public.

Officials on Monday confirmed that the rescue process has been called off.

Standing by the Melcom building's rubble the day after the collapse and sobbing as she waited for rescuers to pull out a friend she feared was trapped, Miriam Ahiekpor, who lives in the area, said "people were working day and night" on the project.

"It was shoddy work," she charged.

Melcom, a Ghana-based company with significant retail holdings, has said it was only renting the building and was not responsible.

The building's owner, Nana Kwesi Boadu, has been hauled in for questioning by police and investigators said he may have built the shopping centre without a permit.

In an interview with an Accra radio station, Boadu said he had obtained a construction permit and had warned the tenants against putting heavy equipment on the upper floors of the building.

"They didn't listen," he said.

An Accra court has ordered that several buildings owned by Boadu be vacated and inspected.

Quarshie said the episode underscores Ghana's need for more rigorous regulation in the construction sector, noting that new measures passed last year in parliament have yet to be fully implemented.

Degbotse pointed to a gap in current legislation that does not mandate the use of an engineer when building a new structure.

Repeats of the Melcom disaster "could be prevented if we ensure that the systems work," Quarshie said.

Already a major producer of gold and cocoa, analysts expect Ghana's emerging oil sector to transform the economy in the nation of more than 20 million people. Its economy is projected to grow by more than eight percent this year.

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