By Kotie Geldenhuys
Photos © 2016 GroundUp
"In many countries, climate change is magnifying risks and increasing the cost of disasters, a trend seen in South Africa given the current drought, the severe weather events and flooding experienced each year." - 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.
When speaking about natural disasters, we tend to think about earthquakes, such as the August 2016 earthquake in Italy in which at least 247 people were killed (www.telegraph. co.uk/news/2016/08/24/italy-earthquake-at-least-73-dead-including-many-children-as-apo); Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti and the Bahamas in October 2016 and in which more than 500 people were killed; and the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 during which more than 15 000 people were killed (http://india-today.into-day.in/education/ story/japan-earth-quake-and-tsunami-of-2011/1/429914. html). But disasters do not only happen in faraway countries - we recently saw a number of disasters hitting South Africa with devastating effects.
Climate change per se may not have been responsible for the recent natural disasters, but there is a strong likelihood that it will impact future catastrophes. Climate models provide a glimpse of the future and although these models do not all share similar details, the majority of models predict a few general trends. These include an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which will probably boost temperatures over most land surfaces further, but the exact change will vary regionally. An increase in global temperatures leads to an increased risk of drought and increased intensity of storms, such as tropical cyclones with higher wind speeds (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/RisingCost/rising_cost5.php). According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, climate change causes poverty and food shortages, and forces even higher numbers of men, women and children to flee their homes. On average, 26 million people are displaced by disasters such as floods and storms every year. That amounts to one person being forced to flee almost every second (www.nrc.no/what-we-do/speaking-up-for-rights/climate-change).
The National Disaster Management Centre
Prior to 1994, the South African government's approach to dealing with disasters was based on the perception that disasters were inevitable and could not be prevented. Accordingly, the management of disasters was restricted to emergency preparedness and response and recovery operations. As a result, the disaster risk management function traditionally found itself in a line function department. In the national and provincial spheres, this was usually the department responsible for provincial and/or local government. In the municipal sphere, the function was often linked to the safety and security portfolio or even in some cases to the fire services function. After the 1994 elections, the government called for a new policy to be developed that would shift the emphasis away from only dealing with disasters once they had occurred to adopting measures to prevent or reduce the risk of disasters. A key aspect of this new policy is the integration of disaster risk reduction strategies into existing and future developmental policies, plans and projects in order to develop robust and resilient individuals, households, communities and areas.
This decision to institutionalise formal disaster risk reduction led to the promulgation of the White Paper on Disaster Management in 1999, the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 and the National Disaster Management Framework (NDMF) in 2005. Together, these legal instruments brought about a total transformation in the state's approach to disaster risk management by establishing an enabling political environment for mainstreaming risk reduction in developmental initiatives in South Africa.