Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2018.

A World Unregulated

In developing countries, building regulations hardly exist. Can a push for research and education change that?


In February 2017, a massive fire tore through a shantytown in Manila, the capital of the Philippines and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. According to published accounts, while the blaze displaced a staggering 15,000 residents, there were no reports of fatalities.

According to Reuters, the fire was one of some 2,200 blazes that occur in Manila each year, where hundreds of thousands of the city’s poor live in shantytowns comprising vast, dense sections of crudely built shacks. Most of the city’s fires occur in the slums, where building regulations are nonexistent; cooking and heating equipment is often haphazardly installed, and exposed electrical wiring snakes through homes, clumped together in basketball-sized tangles.

Manila’s shantytowns are indicative of a growing global problem. According to research from the World Bank Group, which provides loans to developing countries, as much as 80 percent of the built environment in developing nations worldwide is considered informal—that is, built with no official land-use or safety regulations. Experts from the World Bank and from organizations such as NFPA agree that creating a regulatory system in these countries would be one of the most effective means of curbing deaths in informal settlements resulting from fire and other hazards. It’s a tall order for areas so severely lacking in money and other resources, but one that realistically can be achieved through research and education.

As has been demonstrated in the developed world, the creation of successful regulatory systems starts with understanding the risks a particular community faces, said Thomas Moullier, global coordinator of the World Bank Group’s Building Regulation for Resilience Program. Over the past decade or so, however, research into the risks facing poor, informal settlements has focused largely on headline-grabbing events like hurricanes and earthquakes, Moullier said.

“But in some regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, there’s evidence that the damage from extensive, more distributed, chronic risks [like fires] is actually larger than that resulting from acute risks [like hurricanes or earthquakes],” Moullier added. “So there’s a lot we have to do to refocus the attention of the disaster risk management community to these kinds of risks.” Projects like the one to introduce smoke alarms into an informal settlement in Cape Town, South Africa, last year suggest that this is beginning to occur.

After more research is done to understand these chronic risks at the community level, experts envision education as the next step in creating a successful regulatory system. “Effective advocacy relies on educating politicians and community leaders,” Moullier said. “So once you have all of the facts, you have a more compelling argument to present to leaders. [Regulation] doesn’t start with the technicalities of having a good code in place, it starts with that level of consciousness.”

Chart showing the rise of the worlds population living in cities

Further layers of education entail training fire and engineering professionals to build, maintain, and inspect safe properties, efforts that NFPA has been involved with in countries like South Africa and Jamaica. “There needs to be training for fire professionals on all levels, for plan reviewers, for inspectors, for administrators,” said Fred Krimgold, a senior consultant with the Building Regulation for Resilience Program. “There needs to be the creation of a feasible and appropriate institutional structure for fire risk reduction.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images