Kenya + 1 more

Dadaab fire highlights emergency preparedness gap

DAADAB, 31 July 2012 (IRIN) - Large quantities of foodstuffs and other goods were destroyed by a fire on 29 July at the main market in one of the camps making up Dadaab refugee complex in eastern Kenya.

"The total extent of the damage from this devastating fire is impossible to assess in detail at this early stage. However we can confirm that 80 percent of the market was destroyed. There was also some minor damage to surrounding residential blocks, not by the fire itself, but by looting when they had been abandoned by their fleeing residents," said Mans Nyberg, the senior external relations officer at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Dagahaley is one of the five camps (the others are Hagadera, Ifo, Kambios and Ifo 2) in the refugee complex - the world's largest. Some 465,000, mainly Somali, refugees live in Dadaab.

"As a consequence of this major event, UNHCR, partner agencies and the Kenyan authorities in Dadaab have established a working group to put in place a more efficient and effective emergency response structure in case of a major fire emergency," said Nyberg.

At present, responsibility in the case of specific emergency situations like the Dagahaley fire is shared between various agencies as well as the government. "In this particular case, there was a collective failure to implement effective measures," said Nyberg. "It is clear that the existing contingency plans were insufficient to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude."

A lack of adherence to fire preparedness regulations that demand sufficient distances between buildings and structures by shop and stall owners is part of the problem. The congested and disorganized Dagahaley market has grown spontaneously over the last 20 years with unregulated electricity suppliers connecting shop owners to power lines, according to residents.

Dadaab Town also lacks a proper fire brigade. "UNHCR fire engine vehicles were too small to deal with a fire of this magnitude. Also, agency staff as well as the refugees themselves have not been sufficiently trained and drilled for a major fire situation," said UNHCR's Nyberg, adding that there is an urgent need to purchase a proper fire engine for Dadaab.

Insecurity part of the problem

The volatile security situation in Dadaab has also made it difficult to monitor camp activities on a 24-hour basis, he said, noting that the fire started at night when no agency staff were present at the camp. Dadaab has in the recent past been characterized by insecurity [ ] ranging from grenade attacks to the carjacking of aid officials - all blamed on insurgent Al-Shabab militia from neighbouring Somalia.

The Dagahaley fire, which residents attributed to an electrical fault, started at about 7pm on 29 July.

"The fire spread like bush fire and was burning the whole night since there was no emergency response; we could not control it. We used the domestic water we saved for drinking but it was like a drop in the ocean; the fire was even getting worse.

"When the little water we had, finished, we broke the water pipes around the [residential] block near the market and used [it] to stop the fire from reaching the houses," Yussuf Ali Abdullahi, a businessman whose shop was completely destroyed, told IRIN.

"I think the foodstuffs that were burnt in the shops alone are roughly more than 50,000 sacks that contained things like maize, beans and porridge [flour] that were stored for sale."

Fire disasters have in the past been recorded at the Hagadera and Ifo camps in Dadaab.

"We always try our best to sensitize the refugee community to take care of their settlements both in the market and residential blocks. Land encroachment is a big challenge here. People don't help us manage them and in the end when such a disaster happens, the consequences affect all of us," Wendy Oketch, a Lutheran World Federation NGO camp information officer, told IRIN.

"However, we understand there is not much preparedness in fire extinguishing and we are hoping to further our efforts."

"On the positive side, if one can say so in a situation where so many people have lost their property and means of livelihood, the destruction of Dagahaley market is a good opportunity to rebuild it in a sensible and secure way so that a similar catastrophy will not happen again," Nyberg told IRIN.