The deaths, which included a family that drowned after being trapped underground, prompted the South Korean capital to put an end to the people living in the “panjiha” houses – the cramped and filthy basement apartments made famous by the movie “parasite”.
The family of three – a woman in her forties with Down syndrome, her sister and 13-year-old niece – died after water pressure prevented them from opening the door of their flooded home in Seoul’s South Gwanak district.
Monday night’s torrential rains – the city’s heaviest in more than 100 years – caused severe flooding in several low-lying neighborhoods south of the Han River, washing away cars and forcing hundreds to evacuate.
Often small, dark and prone to rot during humid summers, Bungie gained worldwide fame after the release of Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Academy Award-winning film “Parasite,” which followed a fictional family’s desperate attempt to escape poverty. Homes have since come to represent rampant inequality in one of the world’s richest cities.
For years, there have been growing calls for the government to provide more affordable housing, improve living conditions in Benjiha, or phase them out — something officials pledged to do after public outcry over President Yoon Seok-yeol’s handling of the crisis.
“In the future, basements and semi-basements (banjhas) for residential purposes will not be allowed in Seoul,” the Seoul city government said in a statement on Wednesday.
However, experts say the government’s promise ignores bigger problems that linger outside the basement walls, from rising costs of living forcing the most vulnerable to seek shelter in substandard housing prone to flooding and heat – some of the worst effects of climate change.
bunkers to boom
Choi Eun-young, executive director of the Korea Center for City and Environment Research, said the Panjihas Building was first built in the 1970s to serve as bunkers amid rising tensions with North Korea.
With Seoul’s modernization in the following decade, attracting immigrants from rural areas, diminishing space prompted the government to allow the use of residential basements — even though they were “not built for residential purposes, but for air raid shelters, boiler rooms or warehouses,” Choi said.
Pangehas have long suffered from problems such as poor ventilation and drainage, water leakage, lack of easy escape routes, insect infestation, and exposure to bacteria. But its low price is a huge draw as Seoul becomes expensive – especially for young people who face stagnant wages, rising rents, and a saturated job market.
Safety concerns for its survivors arose when severe floods in 2010 and 2011 left dozens dead. In 2012, the government implemented new laws banning Benjiha apartments in “normally flooded areas”.
But the reform attempt was unsuccessful, as an additional 40,000 panges were built after the law was passed, according to a press release from city authorities.
Choi said officials pledged again to investigate the case after “Parasite” shed the light on Benghas – but the COVID-19 pandemic quickly went awry.
As of 2020, there are more than 200,000 apartments left in Bingha In downtown Seoul – they make up about 5% of all households, according to the National Statistics Office.
Besides failing to improve housing, the city government has come under fire this year after cutting its annual budget for flood control and water resources management by more than 15% to 17.6 billion won ($13.5 million).
Choi Tae-young, head of the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters, said the family who died in Gwanak could not escape from their apartment due to water accumulating outside their doors.
The fire and rescue chief accompanied Chief Yoon to the site of the deaths on Tuesday, where they searched the building and interviewed some of its residents. The photos show the president sitting on the street, staring through the ground-floor window at the still submerged basement apartment.
“I don’t know why people didn’t leave here in advance” – a remark that has since been widely criticized on the internet, Yoon said during the inspection.
One of the residents replied: “The water entered in an instant.”
“It took less than 10 or 15 minutes (for the water to rise),” another resident said, adding that the victims “lived a very difficult life.”
In its statement on Wednesday, the Seoul city government said it will phase out basement apartments and bungalows “so that they are not inhabited by people, regardless of regular flood or flood-prone areas.”
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said Pangehas “is a type of backward housing that threatens vulnerable housing in all aspects, including safety and the residential environment, and must now be eradicated.”
The government said in a statement that the cancellation process would include a 10- to 20-year “grace period” for existing Banghas with building permits, and tenants would be helped to move into public housing for rent, or obtain housing vouchers. She added that after the evacuation of the Benji area, it will be converted for non-residential use.
Choi Eun-young, an urban ecology researcher, expressed doubts on the government’s alleged commitment to eradicate Benjit, arguing that the proposal was overly ambitious and lacked specific details such as schedule details or compensation figures.
“In fact, I think there is a very high probability that it will just be an announcement and it will not be carried out,” she said, referring to various government promises – and limited success – over the years.
The poorest are the most affected
Rain has now eased in Seoul – but experts warn that this type of unpredictable extreme weather will become more frequent and intense due to climate change.
Park Jong Min, deputy director of the press office of the Korea Meteorological Administration, said the climate crisis “is warming the land and oceans, which means that the amount of water vapor that the air can hold increases.” “It’s up to the weather, this bag of water will spill.”
As is often the case, it seems likely that the poorest will be among those most affected.
“Those who find it difficult to live and who suffer from physical ailments will be more vulnerable to natural disasters,” President Yun said on Wednesday. “Only when they are safe is the Republic of Korea safe.”
Aside from chronic displacement and disrupted livelihoods, the projected increase in rainfall across Asia could lead to a range of health risks including a higher risk of diarrheal diseases, dengue fever and malaria – another blow to already poor families without access to medical care or means. to move.
Choi Eun-young said that residents of Pangaeha in Seoul face a double risk of flooding and heat waves.
“The changes brought about by the climate crisis are almost catastrophic, especially for the most vulnerable, because they do not have adequate housing to respond to those conditions,” she said.
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