Unity is strength: Gaining local perspectives on emergency response and disaster management in South Africa

  • 2020•04•03     South Africa

    Students interviewing residents at Caleb Motshabi informal settlement © UNU-EHS / Joerg Szarzynski

    Authors: Nokuzola Mnika, Mthembi Chauque, Alice Ncube, Andries Jordaan, Kees Boersma and Joerg Szarzynski

    Currently, in times of the global COVID-19 crisis, hardly a day goes by without politicians asking citizens for solidarity and to look out for their neighbors and more vulnerable members of society. As the participants of the block course “From Vulnerability to Resilience – Disaster Risk Management for Sustainable Development” found out, this type of behavior is already commonly practiced in some of the informal settlements of South Africa. There is even an expression for it in the Sesotho language: “Kopano Ke Matla – Unity is Strength!”

    The block course that focuses on reducing vulnerabilities and strengthening resilience is conducted annually by the the University of the Free State (UFS) and the Disaster Management Training and Education Center for Africa (DiMTEC), in collaboration with UNU-EHS.

    Earlier this year, participants visited the Caleb Motshabi informal settlement on the outskirts of Bloemfontein, in the Free State province of South Africa, to conduct a rapid vulnerability and risk assessment. Before going to the field, 16 students from five different countries in Southern Africa had developed an assessment method based on human, social, cultural, political, infrastructure, ecology, economical and institutional livelihood capitals.

    “This method provides the base for a proper disaster risk assessment which is needed to ensure conclusive identification and mitigation of impacts,” explained Dr. Alice Ncube, senior lecturer and course coordinator at DiMTEC.

    Informal settlements, such as Caleb Motshabi, experience frequent crises in the form of shack fires, flash floods, storms, electric shocks due to illegal power lines, waste dumping, epidemics, crime and lack of basic services, among other things. When the students interviewed the residents, they encountered numerous stories of hazards.

    “For me one of the most touching incidents was when a 33-year-old lady described how heavy rainfall and strong winds tore apart her shack while she was insider with her 5-year-old son. This incident traumatized her son, who now believes that there is a snake in the clouds and this snake will destroy their house,” said Nokuzola Mnika, one of the participants of the course.

    Another student, Mthembi Chauque, was touched by the story of a woman who lost her baby while carrying her on her back to meet with the ambulance on the main road. Because the area is not easily accessible by car, the emergency services, too, have difficulty getting to houses to assist sick people, which leaves the community underserved and vulnerable.

    There are no sophisticated high-tech early warning systems (EWS) in communities like Caleb Motshabi, but there is one instrument that people rely on heavily: solidarity and readiness to help and support each other in times of crisis.

    “In just five minutes I can fill the street here with my neighbors, all of them ready to help, just by blowing my whistle,” said one woman.

    When developing and implementing early warning systems, community engagement and involvement are crucial factors. For informal settlements like this, it is only appropriate to take a people-centered, multi-hazard approach that will include an adequate understanding of risk, monitoring and warning services, as well as dissemination and communication and response capability.

    In order to develop successful methods, it is important to understand the situation on the ground. “Cooperation through participatory methods is crucial, not just for the risk assessment, but also to develop substantial resilience towards hazards,” said Dr. Kees Boersma from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, one of the international instructors of the course.

    “Working on the ground in informal settlements is invaluable,” said Dr. Joerg Szarzynski from UNU-EHS, who has been supporting this initiative in South Africa for more than a decade. “It provides us with the regional context that is needed to better support the process of localization in Emergency Response and Disaster Management. From a UN perspective, we are very glad to support regional and local approaches to training in emergency management and crisis coordination, together with national and regional emergency management agencies and related academic institutions, with the aim of providing more efficient response operations, targeting more people in need and saving more lives.”

    The annual training in South Africa is not only offered to students and academic scholars, but also to practitioners and stakeholders, and it draws participants from provincial disaster management centers and first responders such as fire departments and health services.

    The Disaster Management Training and Education Center for Africa (DiMTEC) is one of the leading providers of disaster management training on the African continent. DiMTEC and UNU-EHS started collaborating back in 2007. Aside from the block course they have had several project-related partnerships, mainly in the field of drought research.

    Participants of the block course at Caleb Motshabi informal settlement © UNU-EHS / Joerg Szarzynski