SOUTH AFRICA: Floods highlight lack of disaster preparedness

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,". 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.” 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." Published by: Eis Africa Full article: http://www.eis-africa.org/EIS-Africa