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Death toll from blasts in Congo Brazzaville reflects bad urban planning

This disaster could have been averted by shifting rural newcomers to Congo Brazzaville to safer neighborhoods, and away from a dangerous site like the arms depot that blew up Sunday.  

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / March 5, 2012

This video image taken across the Congo river in Kinshasa, Congo Sunday March 4, shows a blast that rocked Brazzaville the capital of the Republic of Congo.

AP

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The blasts leveled buildings and were felt as far as five miles away, across the river in the neighboring city of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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But the blasts at the arms depot of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Congo – which killed at least 213 people on Sunday, injured hundreds, and trapped many more within collapsed buildings – have reverberated far beyond Congo’s borders. The reason: like many African countries, Congo has found that its rapidly urbanizing population is moving into areas where large populations were never intended to be, such as this arms depot.

The high death toll shows what happens when countries don’t take urban planning seriously, says Nicolas-Patience Basabose, editor of the French-language news weekly Le Congolais, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“This disaster could have been prevented,” he says in a phone interview. “Twenty or 25 years ago, that area around the depot was an open place, but the city grew up around it, and nobody thought about why these buildings were there. And nobody in the city government thought that maybe the depot should have been moved out of there.”

“It is true of many African countries, including my own country, the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), which have inherited colonial structures,” says Mr. Basabose. “For many government officials, it’s all about power and how to stay in and how to maximize the money through corruption. Nothing is being done to plan the city properly and think in the longer term interest. Now they are paying the price.”

More than a day later, there were still reports of detonations and fire squads were struggling to keep fires from reaching a second arms depot nearby.

"For the time being, there are Russian, French and Congolese experts in the field who are trying to put out the fires. Their goal is to prevent the fires reaching a second depot of even heavier weapons," said Delphin Kibakidi, spokesman of the local Red Cross in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, according to the Associated Press.

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