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Prepping for disasters in this age of climate change

Dr Zweli Mkhize is the Minister of Health, South Africa.

There is a plethora of legislation which governs how the State deals with disasters like floods, fires and other major catastrophic events. But – especially with climate change a reality – we need to also ensure that our communities are part of not only planning for the worst, but also developing a culture of risk avoidance.

The recent floods and attendant hardships that befell our compatriots have triggered a number of questions and enquiries about the country’s state of readiness to deal with disasters and other unforeseen events that bring scores of deaths and massive damage to infrastructure.

The quick answer is that we as far as is humanly possible, we are ready to deal with unforeseen events of this nature in keeping with our Constitutional mandate to protect the fundamental rights of everyone in South Africa.

The Bill of Rights superficially spells out how various rights should be protected. Section 24 of the Constitution specifically guarantees every citizen the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing and the need to ensure that the environment is protected for the benefit of present and future generations through reasonable legislative and other measures.

The Disaster Management Act 2002 (Act 57 of 2002) was specifically put together to ensure the realisation of this constitutional imperative. Notable is that the Act is founded on the need to ensure prevention, preparedness, mitigation of disasters and emergency response in the face of disaster-threatening incidents.

The state of readiness of the country is legally assured and institutionally modelled by the Disaster Management Act and its policy framework, the National Disaster Management Framework of 2005. This stems from the fact that the Disaster Management Act calls for the establishment of disaster management centres at provincial and municipal levels as well as the integration of disaster risk management within the institutional arrangements of all relevant sector departments and other role players.

With these institutional arrangements and various resources set aside for disaster management, the country is able to implement prevention and mitigation measures as well as for emergency response in the face of various incidents and disasters.

However, the success of these measures depends on the extent to which every member of society makes efforts to avoid risk and reduce existing risks in their areas of existence. This is because the government cannot be everywhere, hence the need for every citizen, organisation and other institutions to make efforts to reduce risk as Disaster Risk Prevention and Management is everybody’s business.

To be successful, the approach to disaster risk management should be both multi-disciplinary and require multi-sectoral approaches. This is because the Disaster Management Act of 2002 only serves to coordinate disaster risk reduction measures, while various sectoral pieces of legislation serve to mainstream disaster risk management in their daily programmes and projects, such as legislation governing water services, agriculture, weather services, human settlements, roads and transport, fire and others.

There is a distinction between an incident and a disaster. An incident is any occurrence that is being managed, but has not been classified and declared as a disaster. A disaster, on the other hand, is an occurrence which exceeds the capacity of a particular institution to manage using its own resources, and which has been classified as a disaster under section 23 of the Disaster Management Act and declared as such in terms of section 27 as either a national, provincial or a local state of disaster.

One of the questions that come quite often is on funding after a disaster has been declared. Firstly, the Act requires that once an occurrence has befallen a particular area, the municipality, as well as relevant sector departments, must activate their contingency plans and funds to deal with such an occurrence. Once their resources have been depleted and their national sector departments do not have funds, they can declare the state of disaster as stated above in order to access emergency grants from the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC).

The NDMC will then verify the costs and allocate funds to the relevant sector department responsible for the affected service such as roads, human settlements, health or education. The heads of appropriate departments will be accountable for effective spending and reporting on expenditure.

When disaster strikes, the human touch becomes very important. We need strong and closely-knit neighbourhoods and to support one another, as has been happening in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in light of the recent disasters.

The flooding disasters highlight the urgency of being ready for climate change in all respects. How we plan our settlements is very important, and how we maintain our infrastructure, roads, stormwater pipes, drains and so on to ensure that they are disaster-ready should reign paramount in our minds because the situation is real. It is not hypothetical.

The Disaster Management Act is clear on the need to give priority attention to prevention, mitigation and preparedness while also making room for response and recovery.

It is critical therefore that disaster management plans form part of the municipal Integrated Development Plans as per the provisions of the Municipal Systems Act 2000 (Act 32 of 2000).

The most important prevention is that there should be a culture of risk avoidance across society.

Disaster Risk Prevention and Management is everybody’s business! DM


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