How Zimbabwe Can Best Respond to Natural Disasters

Zimbabwe is a classic example where many national and international organisations, including Government agencies have been working to reduce the risk of disasters.

The recurrence of devastating cyclones has exerted an extra load on the country’s struggling economy.

Following the occurrence of each natural disaster, significant financial support from donor agencies has been channelled towards improving the living conditions of the most vulnerable populations.

However, support has focused primarily on activities related to the response phase, with relatively little attention and sparse resources devoted to the other phases of the disaster cycle — preparedness, recovery, and rehabilitation.

Current responses to cyclone impacts offer yet a typical example of the country’s limited, narrow, reactive, and short-term approach to responding to natural disasters.

On analysing the response phase by different humanitarian organisations, including the Government agencies revealed that much of the focus has been on short-term response activities such as the provision of food and shelter. They included no sustainable measures for addressing the root causes of the situation responsible for the vulnerability of the community.

In this regard, the country was not able to disentangle from the vicious disaster cycle to enable embracing sustainable measures, preparedness to mitigate the impact of disasters, and improvements in the resilience of communities.

Even though sustainable measures are expensive, they can nonetheless be undertaken by the pooling of resources.

Various organisations engaged in the disaster management cycle in the country exhibit severe shortcomings.

It seems they themselves are not very clear about their respective mandates, roles, and responsibilities. This lack of clarity contributes to a great deal of duplicative work, lack of coordination, and ultimately wastage of efforts and limited resources.

On the other hand, NGOs whose mandate is for disaster risk reduction seem to be preoccupied with achieving short-term gains when their strategic priorities should be focused toward sustainable development.

As such, it becomes vital that they realign their roles, identifying the linkages between emergency/relief services and those that could yield longer-term benefits for affected communities.

On the other hand, donor funding of humanitarian responses to natural disasters is currently severely short-circuited as it is unbalanced and unrealistic. Funds disbursed to humanitarian organisations are rarely used efficiently and effectively. Moreover, most of the funds released to the implementing partners in order to meet the needs of affected communities are instead usually allocated to satisfy on-going administrative expenses.

Funders normally require the submission of exhaustive progress reports containing little emphasis on expenditures thus tempting recipients to employ questionable practices, and even submit fabricated reports so as to demonstrate their progress and thereby obtain additional funds.

It is under these self perpetuating weak disaster management structures that Tropical Cyclone Idai recently swept through eastern Zimbabwe, leaving more than hundred people dead, several millions of dollars in damage and thousands affected. This impact was unprecedented even compared to the more intense tropical cyclone Eline of 1999 which swept across the whole breath of the country from Mozambique.

What is of note in the hazard potential difference between the two tropical cyclone was that Tropical Cyclone Eline moved at a much faster speed hence was dumping less rainfall per unit area than was doing tropical Cyclone Idai which was relatively slower and had more time creating havoc at a given location.

However, the advantage for the slow moving cyclone Idai was that it was relatively easy to forecast its future track.

That being the case, the question of whether our government agencies and humanitarian organisations were prepared to face this cyclone remains debatable. What is currently prudent as a nation is that we take introspect of our disaster management systems to see how best we can respond to these disasters so that we do not fall into similar or worse devastation of human lives and property in the future.

However, there exist standard procedures to make communities prepared for high risk areas which when adhered to reduce the potential magnitude of the disaster like that which occurred during Cyclone Idai.

The following are some of the important steps recommended to take before an impending disaster:

Before a Tropical Cyclone Strikes:

The initial step, way before the tropical cyclone season, is to perform a risk assessment to identify environmental hazards that make the area vulnerable to disasters like floods and cyclones and to mark them risk to natural disasters.

The next step is to do disaster preparedness training for the high risk communities. This entails training members of the community to be aware of their environmental vulnerabilities are, how to mitigate them, and respond through developing disaster preparedness plans and actual response to save lives.

An Early Warning System should be put in place so that communities can be warned, know what action is expected before the disaster strikes. There should be a deliberate heightened public awareness about how to respond to warnings or weather signals. The delivery of alerts is very critical as it provides the community with a few life-saving minutes to reach higher ground. It appears many people in disaster prone areas do not know what to do when a warning is issued and this may result in higher than usual casualties. This is because knowing what to do and where to go — namely, moving to higher ground to an evacuation centre if available, can save lives. Training is especially critical for tropical cyclones and related flooding, which is now possible to predict up to several days in advance, especially that they first strike in Mozambique before moving eastwards to affect Zimbabwe.

A disaster response preparedness plan should be put in place for the community which involves pre-positioning relief supplies in disaster prone areas and identifying members of the community to form the community task force, who are trained in disaster preparedness including search and rescue, basic first aid and protecting livestock.

For example, before any cyclone season, a community task force team (most preferably spearheaded by the army) should be set up that is capable of moving people to safe areas once a warning is issued of an impending cyclone strike, thus saving lives and property.

In the emergency phase when a tropical cyclone warning has been Issued

It is vital that a prior developed response strategy is activated so as to coordinate all appropriate stakeholders, such as government, community groups and other NGOs to ensure that all people impacted by the disaster are reached and avoid duplication in response activity.

It is necessary vital to provide the basic necessities like food and water during the first 48 hours so as save more lives.

Use of modern technology like prior established cell phone contacts of survivors to accomplish a rapid assessment of the damage and determine the needs for the emergency phase of the disaster to determine their most critical needs and preferences for assistance.

Judging from our experiences with Cyclone Eline, we are yet again faced with the inevitable long and slow recovery from the Cyclone Idai disaster that devastated parts of eastern Zimbabwe recently. As such the country must also make important choices about how it will prepare communities for similar future events.

In fact, Cyclone Idai (whose name was proposed by Zimbabwe) was supposed to bring happiness as implied from her Shona translation (love it) by providing the much-needed water to fill the dams rather than inflicting indelible marks of misery and devastation that is unprecedented in the country’s history of tropical cyclone impacts.

Professor Desmond Manatsa is the president of the Africa Alliance for Disaster Research Institutions (AADRI) and Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering Faculty at Bindura University of Science Education where he led the introduction of degree programmes in Disaster Management in the Zimbabwe in collaboration with the Disaster Management Centre at Northumbria University, UK.

Source : The Herald

Check Also

Market in Quandary Over Old Mutual, PPC Shares

Confusion reigns over valuation of the Old Mutual and PPC shares that were suspended from …

This function has been disabled for Zimbabwe Today.