South Africa was ill-prepared for the heavy summer rains that have caused flooding in eight of the country’s nine provinces since mid-December, according to disaster management experts and officials, who argue that much of the damage and loss of life could have been avoided by better planning and more investment in disaster management.
With dams overflowing and rivers bursting their banks, the government declared a state of disaster in 33 municipalities on 21 January. By 26 January, as rain continued to fall in many parts of the country, the National Disaster Management Centre estimated that 85 lives had been lost and at least 13,000 houses damaged by the floods, while the Agricultural Ministry estimated the sector had suffered losses of over US$280 million.
According to the director of the African Centre for Disaster Studies at North West University, Dewald van Niekerk, the flooding has highlighted weaknesses in South Africa’s disaster preparedness.
"Our Disaster Management Act is very specific about the definition of a disaster as something that has happened or threatens to occur. It doesn’t seem like people are paying attention to the threatened part," he told IRIN.
Van Niekerk and his colleagues recently completed a study looking at disaster management in 42 municipalities around the country which revealed that “the institutional arrangement for disaster reduction often exists, but there’s no budget and no inter-disciplinary coordination taking place.”
Globally, there has been a shift in recent years away from a purely emergency response to disasters, towards a more proactive approach. In keeping with this trend, South Africa passed its Disaster Management Act in 2002 mandating that national, provincial and municipal disaster management centres be established and that all provinces and municipalities have disaster management plans.
While all provinces now have disaster management centres, some municipalities still do not have disaster management plans and others lack the resources or capacity to properly implement them.
North West Province for example, is struggling to respond to the current situation with just five people manning the disaster management centre, which according to its director, Andrew Mosiane, is supposed to have a staff of 27. “We’re running out of resources because the area is vast,” he told IRIN.
In the Northern Cape, where the Orange River burst its banks in mid-January submerging farms and houses, about 50 percent of posts at the disaster management centre are unfilled and the budget does not stretch to disaster preparedness. "We need to do more... to launch awareness programmes, to train people what to do [in the event of a flood]," said Hendrik de Wee, an official at the centre.
Van Niekerk said his research revealed a similar lack of adequate funding to do disaster risk reduction at the municipal level. The vast majority of municipalities had also failed to base their disaster management plans on vulnerability assessments.
"People have to understand why it floods," he said. "There might be an engineering solution... or there could be an early warning system for the community; it varies according to the vulnerability circumstances."
Lack of coordination
With their limited capacity, the disaster management centres rely heavily on coordination with other government departments to reduce an area's disaster risk. The Department of Housing, for example, should ensure that government housing built in a flood prone area can withstand flooding and the Department of Water Affairs is responsible for stopping people from building dwellings and farms below flood lines.
In reality, said van Niekerk, building regulations are not adhered to and people are rarely prevented from settling on river banks.
"Once people have settled somewhere, it's really difficult to move them," he added.
According to local newspaper The Star, a senior manager with the National Disaster Management Centre, Mmaphaka Tau, told parliament on 26 January that "what undermines disaster management are decisions made elsewhere in the government."
He cited legislation that makes it difficult to rapidly evict people from areas vulnerable to flooding and blamed the Department of Water Affairs for failing to properly manage overflowing dams.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) had forecast a "wetter than normal season" for most of the region due to the influence of La Niña, but according to the South African government, climate change may alter the magnitude and distribution of storms that produce flooding.
"These weather patterns aren’t going to change; what needs to change is our work in pre-disaster preparation," said Mandisa Kalako-Williams, secretary-general of the South Africa Red Cross Society. "A lot of paradigm shifting needs to happen."
She too pointed to the vulnerability of informal settlements that have been allowed to spread along river banks. "All those people living close to the rivers could have been saved if they’d built their houses a bit further up," she said. "There’s just a need for all of us to sit down together and talk about simplified community-based disaster risk reduction."
Van Niekerk said South Africa had taken some steps in the right direction in recent years. "Many national [government] departments are now implementing specific structures for disaster reduction and trying to understand their role," he said. "That’s where we’re going to solve our problems."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions