Poverty is main culprit as 19 die in slum tragedy

Building collapse highlights rental laws which have left Beirut's poorest tenants living in danger

Robert Fisk
Tuesday 17 January 2012 01:00

Usually it's Cairo, this time it was Beirut, but it was a familiar story.

At least 19 – possibly 30 – dead, an old 1920s Lebanese apartment block in a semi-slum, equally old rents, so the survivors said, cheap for the poor tenants; one Egyptian among the dead, four Lebanese including a 14-year-old girl, along with Sudanese, Filipinos and Jordanians. It had been raining for almost a week in Beirut and, during a weekend storm, one of the tenants heard the snap of concrete. He thought it was thunder.

Old rents are the bane of property in Beirut. Under equally old laws, landlords are forbidden to raise rents on long-standing tenants – and thus have no money to pay for safety checks, let alone improvements in the crumbling French mandate buildings that spread across the Lebanese capital after the First World War.

At 25,000 Lebanese pounds a month for a small flat, around £3, a landlord may take in less than £ 100 for an entire building.

Michel Sleiman, the Lebanese president, and a raft of MPs and officials visited the crumpled site of the apartment yesterday while Lebanese Red Cross workers pulled more bodies from the rubble.

Although the district in which the collapse occurred is predominantly Christian, the dead, mostly house workers, were of all creeds – thus making this a peculiarly Lebanese tragedy.

Many Beirut tenants have voluntarily raised their rents since the 1975-1990 civil war; but the poor – especially immigrants from Sudan, Egypt and the Far East, who regularly work as cleaners, maids and doormen in richer Arab countries – cannot afford to do so.

Worse still – though there is no evidence that this applies to the building which collapsed on its 50 tenants in the Fassouh area of Ashrafiyeh on Sunday night – many properties were badly damaged by shellfire during the 15-year conflict and cheaply repaired with no serious study of internal structural damage.

In Egypt, where most buildings are thrown up without planning permission, let alone safety rules, house collapses are frequent. Less so in Beirut, although the city lies on one of the region's most prominent earthquake fault-lines (it connects with the geological lines through Turkey) and scientists have several times warned that Lebanon may soon suffer an earthquake of the magnitude of that which destroyed the Roman port in antiquity.

Only modern buildings in Lebanon are constructed with safety margins for major earth tremors.

Socially, the house collapse in Beirut is part of a general Lebanese malaise of pot-holed roads, contaminated water, high food and petrol prices and virtually no health insurance – a scandal in a country whose banks continue to make world-breaking profits and whose infrastructure, freed from corruption and with a serious taxation system, could provide its people with the best living conditions in the Middle East.

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