By Michael Currin
South Africans are renowned for rallying together to overcome difficult and adverse circumstances, as demonstrated once again when the recent extreme weather patterns wreaked havoc in some parts of the country. Government expresses its deepest condolences to families and friends of those who lost their lives during the unprecedented flooding, heavy winds and fierce fires.
We express our gratitude to everyone in South Africa, particularly businesses and civil-society organisations, for their crucial support in helping government to provide shelter, food, blankets and other basic necessities to the desperate victims of the natural disasters. We commend them for providing the humanitarian aid.
Significantly, government’s quick response and implementation of disaster management in the affected areas, supported by social partners and ordinary citizens, contributed to saving lives and providing much-needed relief. As part of mitigating the increased prevalence of extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change, the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) has since redoubled its efforts to respond faster and effectively to disasters. Moreover, our response is guided at the highest level of government through the Intergovernmental Committee on Disaster Management.
Our main focus is on the continuous monitoring of weather conditions and sharing of key information with disaster management stakeholders across all spheres of government so that contingency plans can be put in place. The Summer Season Disaster Preparedness Plan has been developed in response to the NDMC’s Seasonal Hazard Profile for Spring 2023, which forecasts weather-related hazards such as fires, floods, drought and wind storms as a result of the El Niño phenomenon.
By sharing early warnings, we are helping to safeguard and protect communities across the country. Municipalities, for instance, immediately receive crucial information from the South African Weather Service so that they can take the necessary precautions as well as place emergency response services on standby in case the need arises.
These vital weather warnings are conveyed directly to communities through our partners in the community media. Community talk shows and public announcements ensure that local communities are kept abreast of extreme weather conditions to take the necessary actions to safeguard lives and property.
The increased collaboration of stakeholders across the three spheres of government and across different provinces and municipalities, has ensured better response times from emergency services and rescue operations.
Emergency teams such as firefighters, ambulances or rescue personnel can be directed to areas where they are urgently required. The improved coordination also guarantees that our devoted emergency services personnel who are the first on the scene of a disaster are adequately equipped to handle it.
Our three-pronged approach to disasters helps save lives and provide much-needed emergency assistance and humanitarian support to affected communities; however, there is still room for improvement.
As a caring government, our top priority is to provide immediate humanitarian aid, make sure all affected persons are safe and see to their basic needs. Relevant government departments collaborate with civil-society organisations to ensure that emergency aid is distributed widely among the affected communities.
The Department of Social Development, for instance, offers grants, food parcels and vouchers to help affected families. In some cases, government also offers burial assistance, death certificates, identity documents, post mortems, healthcare services and psychosocial support.
In the stabilisation and recovery phase, government assists with rehousing people who have lost houses and also prioritises the restoration of disrupted services. The local municipality of an affected area, together with the Department of Water and Sanitation, will undertake extensive work to restore basic services such as water, electricity, sanitation and waste removal.
This includes attending to blocked infrastructure such as roads, bridges and drains to ensure access and mobility. Temporary repairs are undertaken to key infrastructure such as power transmission lines to ensure the community and emergency services can continue to function during the aftermath of the disaster.
Our disaster response also includes rebuilding and repairing major infrastructure, and government often mobilises all available resources to ease the living conditions of the affected communities.
It is important to highlight that communities themselves can ensure their safety by exercising extreme caution and care during disasters. Residents are warned that broken power lines or debris from flooding may become dangerous hazards, and those living in low-lying areas should be vigilant against flash flooding and not build homes in such areas. Communities are also warned of possible contamination of water pipelines by raw sewage or other harmful substances.
Motorists should not attempt to cross flooded bridges, but rather park in a safe area and wait for the water to subside before crossing. Do not cross, walk or swim in swift-flowing water even if it is 15 cm deep, as it can sweep you off your feet.
We urge communities not to throw litter into storm water drains to prevent them from being blocked during heavy storms. On the other hand, the proper use and care of wood and coal stoves, fireplaces, chimneys and furnaces can create a safe environment and prevent any risk of fires.
Meanwhile, government remains committed to improving the country’s disaster management and response services to ensure more precious lives are saved and that communities recover quicker from natural disasters, and most significantly, that no one is left behind.
*Currin is Deputy Director-General at Government Communication and Information System
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL