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Lebanon's Disaster Waiting to Happen

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It was a scene Beirut residents hoped they would never have to see again. A mound of twisted metal and concrete, ambulance sirens masking the desperate cries for help coming from beneath the rubble.

The deadly collapse of a five-story apartment block in the east Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh last Sunday brought with it hellish images of devastation previously confined to wartime in Lebanon.

As the death toll continues to rise, so do the questions.

An investigation has been launched and, until its results are known, it is unhelpful to speculate on the precise reason for the building's collapse. For those who have lost loved ones in the tragedy, precipitating factors are of little use now.

Playing the blame game may appear superfluous when contrasted with the devastation the incident has wrought. But even if last Sunday's collapse was not a direct result of poor maintenance and structural neglect, it has brought into the sharpest possible focus the systemic failure by authorities to ensure that buildings, old or new, are safe to inhabit.

The collapsed building was similar to many others across the country: old, decrepit, cheap. Lebanon's antiquarian rental system means that thousands of families still pay pennies each month, dating back to the time they originally moved in to their building. With the rampant redevelopment of Beirut's latest real estate boom, prices outside of older properties are skyrocketing, leaving many unable or unwilling to relocate to newer, safer accommodation. That cracks literally appear in the ceiling is deemed an acceptable risk to take while saving hundreds of dollars a month.

A law passed in 2004 gave what one Beirut architect described as "absolute leeway" to real estate developers over planning guidelines; the implication being that authorities would pay scant attention to safety regulations so long as the money continued to pour in.

Something has been made of the fact that the collapsed building was in the vicinity of a major construction site, leading some to speculate that close engineering work could have weakened the block's foundations. In truth, one would be hard pressed to find a property in all Beirut that is not near a building site.

The cultural damage wrought by the unchecked regeneration of Beirut has been talked about at length, but there are also safety aspects to consider. Last year an old house right next to a construction site collapsed in east Beirut. Miraculously no one was injured, but it provided another example of the risks entailed in developers' "build now, pay later" mentality.

And this is only legal construction. The past 12 months has seen a slapdash crackdown, organized by the same Interior Minister who found himself digging through the rubble on last Sunday evening, against illegal developments, which are rife throughout Lebanon.

The country's tumultuous recent history -- and the lacklustre lawmaking it birthed -- led to the construction of thousands of illegal properties. The structural integrity of each is not known, partly because they don't officially exist, and partly down to successive governments' inability to properly manage the situation.

One of Lebanon's most over-used political buzzwords is development. In its most ambiguous sense, lawmakers use the term to conjure images of prosperity and elevated living standards. But development's literal consequences emerge through bricks and mortar and cash. There is no reason to suggest that last Sunday's collapse renders all buildings in Beirut fundamentally unsafe, but there is hardly an exhaustive list of safeguards against such a scenario. Add to the mix the fact that Lebanon sits astride a major tectonic fault line, and a doomsday situation looms unsettlingly into view.

Rather than blandishments on development, Lebanon's political classes would do better to focus instead on maintenance and law enforcement. Whatever the cause of last Sunday's disaster, it can be reasonably argued that the collapse could have been avoided with better care and attention from authorities.

For relatives of those killed in the tragedy, it is already too late.

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