The deaths, which included a family drowning after becoming trapped underground, have prompted the South Korean capital to crack down on people living in “banjiha” houses — often cramped and filthy basement apartments made of famous from the movie “Parasite”.
The family of three — a woman in her 40s with Down syndrome, her sister and her sister’s 13-year-old daughter — died after water pressure prevented them from opening the door of their flooded home in the southern Gwanak neighborhood of Seoul.
On Monday night, torrential rain, the city’s heaviest in more than 100 years, caused severe flooding in many low-lying neighborhoods south of the Han River, washing away cars and forcing hundreds to evacuate.
Often small, dark and prone to mold in the humid summer, the banji has gained global fame following the release of Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Oscar-winning film Parasite, which followed the desperate struggle of a fictional family to escape poverty. Since then, the houses have come to represent rampant inequality in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.
For years, there have been growing calls for the government to provide more affordable housing, improve living conditions in the banjihas or get rid of them altogether — which officials have vowed to do after public outcry over its handling of the crisis. by President Yoon Suk Yeol.
“In the future, in Seoul, basements and half-basements (banjihas) will not be allowed to be used for residential purposes,” the Seoul city government said in a statement on Wednesday.
However, experts say the government’s pledge overlooks bigger problems that persist beyond basement walls, of high living costs forcing the most vulnerable to seek shelter in substandard housing vulnerable to flooding and heat – some of the most damaging effects harms of climate change.
Bunkers will thrive
Banjihas were first built in the 1970s to serve as bunkers amid rising tensions with North Korea, said Choi Eun-yeong, executive director of the Korea Center for Urban and Environmental Research.
As Seoul modernized in the following decade, attracting immigrants from rural regions, shrinking space prompted the government to allow the use of basements for living — even though they were “not built for residential purposes, but for air raid shelters, rooms boiler or warehouse.” Choi said.
Banjihas have long been fraught with problems such as poor ventilation and drainage, water leakage, lack of easy escape routes, insect infestation and exposure to bacteria. But their low price is a big draw as Seoul becomes more unaffordable — especially for young people facing stagnant wages, rising rents and a saturated job market.
Safety concerns about banjihas were highlighted when severe floods in 2010 and 2011 left dozens dead. In 2012, the government implemented new laws banning banjiha housing in “habitually flooded areas”.
But the reform effort failed, with another 40,000 banjihas built after the law was passed, according to a press release from city authorities.
Officials again vowed to investigate the case after “Parasite” put the banjihas in the spotlight — but they were quickly sidelined by the Covid-19 pandemic, Choi said.
As of 2020, more than 200,000 banjiha apartments remained in downtown Seoul — accounting for about 5% of all households, according to the National Statistics Office.
Along with its failure to improve housing, the city government came under fire this year after cutting its annual budget for flood control and water resource management by more than 15% to 17.6 billion won ($13.5 million).
The family drowned
The family who died in Gwanak could not escape their apartment because of water pooling outside their door, said Choi Tae-young, chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters.
The fire and rescue chief accompanied President Yoon to the scene of the death on Tuesday, where they inspected the building and interviewed some of its residents. Photos show the president sitting in the street, looking out a ground-level window into the still-flooded basement apartment.
“I don’t know why the people here didn’t evacuate in advance,” Yoon said during the inspection — a remark that has since been widely criticized online.
“The water came in instantly,” answered a resident.
“It took less than 10 or 15 minutes (for the water to rise),” said another resident, adding that the victims “lived a very, very difficult life”.
In its statement on Wednesday, the Seoul city government said it will phase out basement apartments and banjiha “so that they cannot be inhabited by people regardless of ordinary flooding or flood-prone areas.”
Banjihas are “a type of backward housing that threatens vulnerable housing in all aspects, including safety and living environment, and must now be eliminated,” said Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon.
The phase-out process will include a “grace period” of 10 to 20 years for existing tenements with planning permission, and tenants will be helped to move into public rental housing or receive housing vouchers, the government said in a statement. Once the banjihas are cleaned, they will be converted for non-residential use, he added.
Choi Eun-yeong, the urban environment researcher, expressed skepticism on the government’s supposed commitment to eliminate banjihas, arguing that the proposal was too ambitious and lacked concrete details such as specifics on the timeline or compensation figures.
“In fact, I think there’s a very good chance that it will just be a statement and not implemented,” she said, pointing to the government’s various promises — and limited success — over the years.
The poorest are hit hardest
The rain has now eased in Seoul — but experts warn that this type of extreme and unpredictable weather will become more frequent and intense due to climate change.
The climate crisis is “raising the temperature of the Earth and ocean, which means the amount of water vapor the air can hold is increasing,” said Park Jung-min, deputy director of the Korea Meteorological Administration’s press office. It depends on the weather where this bag of water will be poured.
As is often the case, it seems likely that the poorest will be among those to be hit hardest.
“Those who are struggling to make ends meet and those who are physically ill will be more vulnerable to natural disasters,” President Yoon said on Wednesday. “Only when they are safe, the Republic of Korea is safe.”
In addition to chronic displacement and disrupted livelihoods, the expected increase in rainfall across Asia could bring a range of health risks, including higher risk of diarrheal diseases, dengue fever and malaria — a further blow to families already poor without access to medical care or tools. to relocate.
In Seoul, banjiha residents face the dual danger of floods and heat waves, said Choi Eun-yeong.
“The changes caused by the climate crisis are almost catastrophic, especially for the most vulnerable, because they do not have adequate shelter to respond to those conditions,” she said.
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