(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Storm highlights need for disaster preparedness

[Swaziland] Weatherman.

The clean-up after the worst storm to strike Swaziland in the last 20 years has exposed the need for a disaster preparedness programme, said residents and agencies.

"The [last big storm in] 1984 took days to create the damage caused in 15 minutes by the storm that struck [the commercial city of] Manzini. Like the '84 disaster, the storm showed the lack of preparedness for dealing with natural disasters here," business owner Sibusiso Fakudze told IRIN.

An estimated 30 people were killed in the strong winds, severe hail and lightning that hit the southern Manzini and Shiselweni regions last week. The National Meteorological Department classified the weather event as a category F-1 tornado.

"The storm was moving at more than 60 knots, which is around 80 km/hour. The deaths resulted mostly from people being swept away in flooded rivers," said meteorologist Dennis Mkhonta.

The first need exposed was the country's lack of a storm early-warning system - the weather service has no Doppler radar to detect emerging storm activity; there is no alarm system to alert urban or rural residents via government radio.

"The emergency phone line was overwhelmed, and the first thing we will review is communications," said Lieutenant Amos Gule of the Swaziland Fire and Emergency Services.

About 100 000 people, or one in 10 Swazis, were affected by the storm, which has exacerbated the country's food shortage situation.

"The figure will rise as the assessment continues. As for food storage - maize tanks were blown away and water leakage was experienced by most of the affected areas, leaving families without food," said Christopher Dlamini, public relations officer for the Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross.

The affected central Manzini region is the country's most populous urban area and the nation's agricultural breadbasket.

"Fresh crops in the fields, such as maize, beans and sweet potatoes, were affected. It is estimated that 80 percent of the young maize crop was completely destroyed, while the entire bean crop was damaged," said Dlamini.

The authorities were criticised for their inadequate response to the emergency - Prime Minister Themba Dlamini initially said the government would offer no financial assistance to victims of the storm, but would ensure security in the affected areas.

"Our heartfelt sympathies go to all those who have been injured or have been left destitute and homeless," Dlamini said, while appealing for financial assistance from international donor groups, "our good partners and friends of Swaziland."

Yielding to criticism from the public as the scope of the storm damage became apparent, Dlamini subsequently offered R5 million (about US $800,000), to be shared amongst residents and schools, and used for infrastructure repair.

The local press contrasted the sum with the R250 million ($40 million) the government is spending on controversial projects, like a new international trade fair and an international airport in the eastern desert.

"It should be disturbing even to the 'good partners and friends of Swaziland' that while government cannot afford to allocate money to assist storm victims, the same government is spending R250 million on those projects," said newspaper columnist Nimrod Mabuza.

Noting reports of thawed frozen food products sold at Manzini restaurants and stores on the fourth day of the power blackout after the storm, Bongani Mdluli, chairman of the Swaziland Consumers Association, urged outlets not to sell damaged goods. "It is clear that most of the foodstuff that had been kept in refrigerators is no longer fit for human consumption," Mdluli said.

The country has legislation prohibiting the sale of unsafe food, but there is no enforcement mechanism. The consumer group hopes the post-storm situation will prompt reform.

The length of time taken to reinstate essential services also showed the fragility of the electricity and water delivery infrastructure.

"It took an entire week to restore life back into the little town that is Manzini," said Promitius Ntshalintshali, a local resident. "What would be the case if a storm would ravage the entire country? Would it take a year to bring back the electricity? With what I have seen, it is possible."

Jameson Mkhonta, public affairs manager for the Swaziland Water Services Corporation, partly blamed the blackout for a water cut-off in most Manzini neighbourhoods. "Due to the recent severe storms, water pipes were washed away, and there were power cuts. Even though the power supply has been restored, it will take about a week until normal water supply is restored. Similar interruption problems were encountered with telephone lines."

The storm exposed the need for businesses to be insured - many schools, businesses and offices were structurally damaged.

"Building codes are inadequate. For architects here, the rule has always been to build cheaply - I suspect corruption also has a hand in the choice of government building materials - even new Manzini office buildings suffered internal rain damage," a retired Manzini architect told IRIN. "Building codes must be reviewed for safety."

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