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Sinamalé fire prompts building safety concerns



A fire that broke out in a public housing flat in Malé on Tuesday afternoon has left two family homes temporarily unlivable as residents claim that the flats were unsafe for habitation.

The fire started in the storeroom of flat number 14-14 in the Sinamalé housing complex and spread rapidly to the adjoining flat. A family of four adults and three children have been forced out of their home.

The authorities have yet to finalise a formal assessment, but a fireman from the Maldives National Defence Force at the scene said the military’s fire and rescue service suspect an electrical short caused the fire.

The fire did not cause any injuries and was put out in about an hour.

Abdullah Shan, a resident of the three-bedroom Sinamalé flat where the fire originated, said he discovered it around 2:20pm when he came home to take a shower.

“I noticed the smoke first from the steps. I went inside and saw lots of smoke outside,” he recalled.

Shan came out to the balcony of the flat and alerted a group of boys outside, who helped him to break down the door of the bedroom.

The boys, residents of the housing community, then alerted the police and other residents, evacuating everyone inside the block.

“I would say that the house is unlivable now by the state of it,” said Shan’s brother, Mohamed Shah, 33.

“All the windows are broken, and as it is a very old building there is structural damage with visible cracks on the concrete walls.”

Sinamalé is a 25-year-old, four-storey government housing block built to alleviate congestion in the capital. The residents were offered the opportunity to own the flats through paying rent instalments.

“I am not sure if we will be able to fix such an old structure, enough to make it livable again. Even if it were fixable, we don’t have the means to conduct the necessary construction,” said Shah.

Residents of Sinamalé at the scene of the fire yesterday meanwhile raised concerns over the lack of safety measures.

All dry riser inlets and fire hose reels were completely useless, with several being broken during drug raids. Sinamalé is often raided by the police for alleged drug use and sale within the premises.

Ahmed Ahusan, who was one of the first to reach the scene, said that the fire could have been contained if there had been a fire extinguisher.

“But we couldn’t stop the fire because there was none nearby. It spread easily across the wooden rafters of the ceiling,” he said.

Sinamalé residents also raised concerns about the age of the housing block as well as the lack of proper maintenance carried out for it to be a safe living space.

Resident are charged MVR200 (US$13) a month for maintenance fees, but claim that little has been done.

“We met with the housing minister during the parliamentary elections. He assured us they would carry out a survey to assess the conditions of the flat. Later he told us that it needs a little bit of repair, but would be fine afterwards,” said Fathimath, who has lived in the flats for two decades.

The flats are still in a great deal of disrepair, with chunks of concrete from the sheeting often falling into rooms. This combined with poor plumbing often leave flats flooded and leaking to other floors, leading to poor hygienic conditions.

The Sinamalé fire has also highlighted the need for the proper construction and safety of public buildings.

The current administration has pledged to construct thousands of housing units in the Greater Malé Region with the aim of resettling 75 percent of the country’s population here.

However, the construction industry yesterday also expressed concerns at the lack of proper procedures within a legally binding building code. The fire has also highlighted the need for proper design, construction and maintenance guidelines for public buildings.

Sinamalé and Malé Hiyaa, the two public housing blocks in the capital, are home to an estimated 2,000 people.

“The building code we have currently is is performative document, not tied to a Building Act. There is no comprehensive law that requires a set of building codes,” explained Mohamed Ishan, an architect and urban design professional.

“This leaves a gap in ensuring a safe built environment for the public and a construction industry where professional liabilities remain ambiguous. Oversight is currently allocated to a government ministry which allows for political corruption and culture of carelessness. An independent public oversight body under an encompassing Act, would take legal responsibility in assigning professional liabilities and ensuring public safety”

Ishan noted that oversight responsibilities currently rest with a government ministry, “which allows for political corruption and culture of carelessness.”

He suggested that an independent public oversight body should be formed under a new building law.

The new institution could take “legal responsibility in assigning professional liabilities and ensuring public safety,” he said.

“Right now everything is mismanaged because the existing framework is too weak.”

The Maldives Disaster Management Centre is currently attending to the victims of the fire by providing them with temporary shelter. According to the family, the defence minister has also pledged assistance.