Picture: Getty images/Rodger Bosch
Picture: Getty images/Rodger Bosch

Year after year, fires ravage informal settlements in various parts of the country. Most recently, a fire broke out among shacks in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. One person died in the October blaze, while 4,000 were left homeless.

It was not the first time this year that tragedy struck the township, home to 400,000 people according to the most recent estimate. In May the human cost was higher: eight people — five of them said to be children — died in a fire.

In September, four children died in two separate shack fires in the space of 24 hours in Alexandra and Kagiso, Gauteng.

The tragedies come back in loops. Disaster comes not only in the form of flames, but also droughts and flash floods. And insufficient underlying infrastructure compounds the problems for disaster management efforts.

This raises the question of SA’s disaster management capacity, and what challenges face those tasked with mitigating the fallout.

Ekurhuleni’s disaster & emergency management service says the people who are most vulnerable are those living in informal settlements. Similarly, Tshwane emergency services spokesperson Johan Pieterse highlights the difficulties in combating fire in such dense environments, where living structures are built with highly flammable material.

But the tragedy of fire consuming all in its path is not limited to highly populated and urbanised areas (though urbanisation is said to increase risk). The veldfires in the Western Cape have shown as much, with parts of the coastal town of Knysna reduced to ashes in June last year. A little more than a year later, uncontrollable fires blazed along the Garden Route between George and Knysna at the end of last month, leaving nine people dead, mostly children.

To manage risk is not a thing you can show people. You can only tell them a disaster did not happen. It is completely abstract
Dewald van Niekerk

A common theme that emerges when one considers disasters in SA is that the government’s response seems reactive rather than proactive.

The official response is governed by the amended Disaster Management Act, which aims to provide for an integrated and co-ordinated disaster management policy that focuses on preventing or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating the severity thereof, emergency preparedness, rapid and effective response, and post-disaster recovery and rehabilitation. The act also provides for the establishment and functioning of national, provincial and municipal disaster management centres.

Such co-operation between the provincial and municipal governments was evident when emergency personnel from the cities of Tshwane and Ekurhuleni were roped in to help combat the fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in Joburg in September.

But Sabelo Gwala, of the SA Local Government Association (Salga), tells the FM that the lack of disaster risk reduction is one of the challenges SA faces in disaster management. He says Salga lobbied hard to ensure local municipalities could plan for and respond to disasters, something that is contained in the act as a result. But when adequate disaster risk management structures were being established in municipalities, it soon became clear that very few municipalities had completed disaster risk assessments. This, he says, is now a priority.

"Unfortunately, while Salga successfully lobbied for a disaster conditional grant dedicated to municipalities in 2012, risk-reduction measures remain unfunded in most cases and response funding still requires national approval," Gwala says.

When it comes to actual disaster management capacity — both available infrastructure and human capital — he says there is no viable instrument to assess whether capacity is appropriate at either national or provincial level. Municipal assessments show that municipalities have the capacity to respond, but they lack early warning capabilities to mitigate disaster.

Gwala says it is important that national funding be set aside for risk reduction because municipal funding is "consistently" focused towards service delivery, expansion of delivery networks and revenue collection, which makes it difficult to fund disaster risk reduction at the local level.

He says the disaster management conditional grant from the National Treasury — a grant that should allow for the immediate release of funds for emergency response — is underutilised each year because it is based on applications and assessments. "Therefore, it may be possible to divert such money to risk-reduction programmes if it is unspent beyond a certain point."

But he warns that if there is no significant change in the next 10 years, "we are likely to see the current system being overwhelmed".

He says: "The longer we go on with unfunded risk reduction, the more insufficient the disaster management conditional grant will become and the window of opportunity will close. Metros and secondary cities need to be assisted to ensure compliance with town planning laws as this will lead to [reduced] construction of houses … below flood lines."

Budget constraints are a problem, with Pieterse and Keith Khoza, deputy director- general for human settlements in Gauteng, saying more money is needed for disaster management.

James-Brent Styan, spokesperson for Western Cape local government, environmental affairs & development planning MEC Anton Bredell, echoes the sentiment, saying the major constraint the Western Cape faces is budget.

The province has had its share of natural disasters. Not only the veld and informal settlement fires, but also a crippling drought that almost resulted in Cape Town running out of water.

Styan says the provincial budget is roughly R60bn, 90% of which goes to education and health. The department of local government’s annual budget in the Western Cape is about R250m, the bulk of which is spent on supporting municipalities in the province.

"Disaster management is one of five units in that department. This gives an indication of the funding constraints," Styan says.

What it means

Disaster management is about more than being reactive when tragedy strikes; it’s also about making communities less vulnerable

Despite this, the province is seen as the best in what it is doing. Styan says the Western Cape has a permanent disaster management centre that is activated in times of crisis and that provides a proactive disaster avoidance service in the province when there is no crisis to manage. This includes arranging educational programmes at schools, as well as researching ways in which to reduce disaster risk and damage.

He says each of the 30 municipalities in the province has disaster management capacity and that the province recently completed the rollout of a programme to provide modern, fully equipped and built-for-purpose fire trucks to its rural municipalities.

"The Western Cape is the only province with this capability."

Dewald van Niekerk, professor and director of the African Centre for Disaster Studies at North-West University, says though the establishment of the disaster management centres has been hugely successful at metro level, disaster management at some local municipalities is the "poor old stepchild" that does not get paid much attention.

He says if money were shifted to other development aims, it would simply be a case of "robbing Peter to pay Paul".

But it’s not just about funding. Van Niekerk says the research done at the centre has found that there is money available — but the capacity to use it effectively is lacking. He says their research has found that, on a local level, politicians do not always understand the task of the disaster management centres, and that funds are used to appoint "cronies".

There is also a big void in the multidimensional and multisectoral element of disaster risk management, he says.

It is easy for departments to move responsibility over to the risk management centres, but rapid urbanisation and climate control also have major implications for disaster risk management.

Van Niekerk believes provinces are missing the mark when it comes to drawing up risk profiles: they look only at the traditional dangers and not at factors such as development, sustainable housing, and access to services and jobs — all of which make people less vulnerable.

For Van Niekerk, disaster risk management is something authorities have to work at continuously. But he doesn’t believe it’s all bad in SA. It’s just "not an end product. We will never reach a point where all our risks have been reduced," he says.

Disasters and disaster management are also highly political in nature, as can be seen in SA and globally: politicians use such events as electoral tools. But Van Niekerk says that, on a much more practical level than merely boasting about how well a crisis has been dealt with, or using it as a stick to attack political opponents, real disaster management is about reducing risk — something that is intangible.

"To manage risk is not a thing you can show people," he says. "You can only tell them a disaster did not happen. It is completely abstract."