A dilemma between policy and disaster preparedness

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While the world’s eyes are still transfixed on the recent Japanese disasters, in Namibia floods and waterlogging are reported to have displaced over 37 000 people and destroyed houses, crops and road network and other infrastructure.

Some communities affected are still not reachable as most roads are destroyed.

While the loss in Namibia is a just a drop in the ocean compared to that of Japan, the latter is likely to recover much faster than the former. But no disaster is of less significance than the other especially if it affects human life and its livelihood.

However, this is not my line of argument this week.
The northern regions of Namibia have always been affected by flooding in the past decade.

Two factors contribute to this phenomenon.

Firstly the Caprivi Strip has always been victim of Zambezi River bank bursts whenever there are incessant rains upstream in Angola, and secondly places such as Oshikoto, Oshana, Ohangwena and Omusiti, lie in low-lying areas which results in waterlogging.

Over the years, there has been huge investment into emergency response and disaster preparedness.

With the aid of satellite technology and investment by players such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in community-based early warning systems, Namibia has reduced or mitigated the loss of lives during the recurrent flood disasters.

The Zambezi River Basin Initiative, the Red Cross flood mitigation flagship project which brings together Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in monitoring and managing the levels of water along the Zambezi River and the issuant livelihood systems, has been a source of hope as it has shown some positive results so far.

However, the current flooding in Namibia raises a number of key policy questions around the concept of preparedness versus and policy issues.

While it has been historically and scientifically proven that preparedness combined with an early system is much cheaper than responding, but it costs even less if there is a proper land use policy in place to avoid such predictable recurrent disasters.

For starters, some of these areas’ traditional names suggest that they were and will still be flood prone.

Among the heavily affected places in the current Namibia floods include Oshana which in local language means flood plain and Ongwediwa which means a water leopard.

These areas perennially suffer waterlogging as they are so flat that water from incessant rains can not flow anywhere.

In Zimbabwe, we have our own Muzarabani which when literally translated means a flood plain and yet every year, people keep their ears on the ground as there is high chance of flooding.

The question I wish to raise here is; why are these people allowed to continue settling in these areas when there is historical evidence that they are prone to these disasters?

It is true that preparedness yields results but relocation stops disaster from affecting people.

Every time there is a disaster, there is a huge disruption of social and economic activity in addition to the obvious loss of livelihoods which invites charity in order to keep the survivors alive.

Isn’t it prudent to relocate these people to safer areas and leave disaster-prone areas to disasters?

This does not only apply to flood disasters but other phenomenon that perennially disrupt the normal functioning of the vulnerable people.

There are people who are settled in places that are historically known to be drought or malaria prone and yet every year resources are invested in deploying response teams to save their lives.

Most African countries including both Namibia and Zimbabwe have vast tracks of unoccupied lands, some of which are reserved for animals while its people are prone to these disasters.

In Zimbabwe the main flood hot spots include Muzarabani, Tsholotsho and the Save River but never in Hwange National Park.

Likewise the affected places in Namibia neighbour one of its biggest national parks and yet there are never cases of flooding or drought in those areas.

We can only imagine that with the increased effected and severity of the effects of the La Niña and El Niño phenomena and climate change, human beings will continue suffering loss of lives and livelihoods due to the absence or lack of proper policies that protect and value human life.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa