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Expert: Our disaster management system leaves much to be desired

10th January 2012
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Masozi Nyirenda

This week Gerald Kitabu interviewed Masozi Nyirenda, a disaster management expert on how best the nation can face up to the challenge. Excerpts:

QUESTION: What is the current state of disaster management in the country?

ANSWER: Taking a review of disaster occurrence in Tanzania and the response from responsible authorities, I conclude that at the moment the disaster management system is very poor. I assume that may be our government has not been well prepared to face such challenges or the relevant authorities have not been responsible enough.

There is a low level of efforts taken to put in place mitigation or prevention measures for occurrence of disasters. Instead, we have used a lot of efforts to support post disasters. Preparedness and response efforts have not been effective as well.

Q: Why?

A: We have observed in a series of disaster events which have occurred in the country that one could see the Disaster Management Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office as well as other supporting institutions such as fire department, police, national service and medical departments are ill-equipped to deal with such events as well as their time for response is very slow and poor.

To mention just a few, on May 21, 1996, the Mv Bukoba marine disaster caused a loss of human life and property. The boat was ferrying passengers and cargo between Bukoba and Mwanza ports. The steamer's capacity was 430, but around 800 people drowned as the boat sank in Lake Victoria. The manifest showed 443 passengers in the first and second class cabins, but the cheaper third class compartment had no passenger manifesto.

Last year, our nation was struck by a wave of grief following a marine disaster when the ship Spice Islanders which was heading to Pemba drowned and caused loss of property and human life. There are several such disasters in marine transport in the country which have caused loss of lives and property due to negligence.

Other disasters include the fire inferno at Shauritanga Secondary School which killed 43 students. However, it seems no effective measures were taken as the i8ncident occurred again few years after the first incident.

Last year we witnessed bombs exploding at Mbagala and Gongo la Mboto military camps and caused loss of to human life and property>

My argument for strengthening disaster management system is based on how responses towards disasters have been in Tanzania. Mostly we have rushed and utilized a lot of resources and efforts to rescue victims of disasters after their occurrence.

We have not established systems which will help in prevention or reducing the effects of disasters. In addition, the current floods have revealed how vulnerable we are in terms of poor disaster management skills among citizens as well as lack of adequate and reliable equipment for rescue operations.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), traditionally local communities in Tanzania use “reactive or crisis management approach” to react to natural disasters.

Under this approach, the communities wait until an event occurs and then try to mitigate the consequences by whatever means available as quickly as possible. One of the reasons for adopting this approach is due to the uncertainty of the occurrence of a natural disaster, so rather than incurring costs in preventive measures, the villagers adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.

The reactions by various government authorities which are responsible for disaster management on various disasters which have occurred, concurs with UNEP observation. We are yet to establish a disaster management system which aims at offsetting or minimizing risks so that disasters do not occur completely or when they strike, they do not cause severe damage on the wide population.

Q: To what extent have disasters affected the youth?

A: It is widely known that children and youth constitute a large percentage of the population. During disasters, it is the youth and children who are largely affected. For example, in recent floods some of the youth lost their lives, their homes, their properties or might have lost their beloved ones including parents.

This means it will take a lot of time for them to recover from such loss. There is a need for putting into plans how to support youth who have been affected by disasters.

Q: Are the disaster and safety management facilities adequate?

A: As I said earlier on, to be honest we have observed that all our units which could have supported disaster management are ill-equipped. For example, during the recent floods, there were inadequate rescue boats and other flood rescue gears such that one Member of Parliament had to hire a boat to support rescue mission. Some of the citizens sacrificed to swim with no life jackets to rescue fellow citizens.

Even the National Service and Police rescue team was exhausted as they had to shift from one place to another to do rescue activities, while we expected that different teams could have been deployed to various places with all required instruments. Suppose the problem would have been much bigger, I think we could have lost more lives and property.

Q: What are the potential disasters at the moment?

A: Apart from the disasters which have already happened, there are many potential disasters which can be prevented from happening, but the responsible authorities tend to ignore them.

The urban planning system which could have supported in effective disaster management is also very poor. In most of the places the houses are unplanned, too congested and constructed in flood valleys such that during emergencies the rescue operations become very difficult. Disasters such as fire, flood, or diseases out break can be intensified in such areas.

Effective urban planning do not allow people to dwell in areas prone to floods. However, there has not been in place effective measures to ensure that people do not construct in valleys. Every year during heavy rains, there has been many cases of loss of property, lives and outbreak of communicable diseases.

Recently, I was doing shopping at Congo Street in Kariakoo, and observed that there are underground shops. None of them have fire extinguisher systems and fire or flood escape systems. In this case, when fire, earthquake or flood disaster happens it is likely there will be massive loss of lives and property. I was wondering whether the government department which inspects building provided permits without ensuring such systems are in place.

We need to consider that disaster management does not end with natural events. Disasters caused due to socio-economic and political unrest and crises should also be considered when designing disaster management systems.

There are some political strives which have resulted into intensified clashes, loss of lives, property and peace among Tanzanians. However, there are some of these strives which could have been prevented if the responsible authorities could have been accountable. For example, if students’ loans are given on time, we do not expect to see frequent country wide boycotts in universities.

On the other hand, let us see that an increasing number of youth who are unemployed is a potential disaster once they decide to take to the streets to pressurize the government to do something about their lives.

Q: Two weeks ago, the Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA) did forecast that there would be floods, but that did not happen. What is your comment on this?

A: For a number of years, most of the weather predictions have not happened. I conclude that our Early Warning Systems are poor including the meteorological unit. People have complained about TMA providing false alarms, which might in ignorance of such warnings in future. There is a need to have updated equipment which could provide accurate prediction by at least 80 percent, but total miss of predictions is a total false alarm. TMA should take this seriously!

Q: After disasters have happened, what should be done?

A: There are four phases in disaster management, namely mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Therefore, after disasters have occurred the last stage on “Recovery” should be done. The aim of the recovery phase is to restore the affected area to its previous state.

Recovery efforts are primarily concerned with actions that involve rebuilding destroyed property, re-employment, and the repair of other essential infrastructure. Efforts should be made to "build back better", aiming to reduce the pre-disaster risks inherent in the community and infrastructure.

On the other hand post-disaster recovery can be a good opportunity to take some measure which might not be popular such as re-allocation of victims, completely banning on utilization of disaster prone area, demolishing of infrastructure prone to disaster and many others. Citizens of the affected area are more likely to accept more mitigation changes when a recent disaster is in fresh memory.

However, caution should be taken that people should be re-allocated to areas where the government has put in place important social services in the new place to support start up for the re-allocated people.

Q: Are the plans to re-settle the victims of disaster effective enough?

A: I commend the government for efforts taken to support flood victims, however, there are a number of things which have not been taken in ensuring that flood victims have smooth transition in settling down.

This includes ensuring that re-settlement areas have basic social services such as water, latrines, shelter and food. We have heard of re complaints from victims of previous disasters, who were re-allocated in areas with no social services.

Q: Some victims would need psycho social supports to come to normal life, is this done to the recent flood victims?

A: Our Disaster Management System lack post-disaster trauma psycho-social counseling services, which is an important component to help disaster victims to start up their lives. Even in the recent flood disaster in Dar es Salaam, I have not heard any call for volunteer counselors to provide counseling services provided to victims.

You know when someone loses everything he or she has worked for many years, there is possibility of having trauma, and can result in to post-trauma diseases or even suicide in some cases. I would like to advise the concerned authorities that this is very essential in disaster management.

Q: Finally, what is your advice to the government and the public at large?

A: To the public, we need to be cautious on potential disasters as at the end of the day we are going to be victims.

To the government, I think there is a need to have public education on disaster management drills, so as to help save more lives and property when disaster hits.

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN
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