Lives could have been saved

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BROADLY speaking, there are two types of disasters: natural and man-made.

Editor’s Memo,Brezh Malaba

While the first category comprises phenomena which are outside the scope of human control—also known as “acts of God”—the second type is induced by human action or inaction and therefore falls within the realm of intent and negligence.

If gross economic mismanagement and corruption, for instance, lead to the death and suffering of almost an entire population, can this be considered a man-made disaster? If so, then we should acknowledge that disasters—of one kind or another—are not as uncommon as many people suppose.

I am raising this issue because there is a tendency by some to view disasters from a self-serving prism.

Consider the following facts. About one in three children under the age of five in Zimbabwe suffer from stunting, a chronic form of malnutrition. What future can you talk of when children’s development is gravely threatened in this manner?

Zimbabwe’s weak disaster risk governance was exposed in a painful manner in the last few days when Cyclone Idai devastated Chimanimani, killing hundreds of people and destroying homesteads, roads, schools and everything of value.

A nation’s capacity to adequately manage disaster risk is a direct reflection of the governance ethos.

In this country, there is no institutionalisation of disaster management. When a natural disaster strikes, the response from the authorities is disjointed, piecemeal, knee-jerk and ad-hoc.

Do you ever ask yourself why nations differ in the manner in which they handle disaster risk?

There is no magic formula. It is not dependent on geographical location or how fervently religious the population is. The answer is clear: governance stupid!

There is no better litmus test to gauge the health of a good governance system than a massive natural disaster. It has the uncanny ability to reveal brutal home truths about the quality of public institutions, leadership style, institutionalisation of democracy, level of socio-political dynamism, and the degree of civic engagement. In short, it tells you the story of the relationship between citizens and leaders.

Where citizens feel alienated from the leaders, it is difficult to win the public’s buy-in on issues to do with inculcating a sense of shared responsibility and a common destiny.

Disaster risk management is strengthened through the systematic development of institutional arrangements from ward, village, district and provincial levels. Policymakers and bureaucrats have a tendency to splash taxpayer funds on endless workshops in air-conditioned hotels in the big cities, forgetting that true risk management must include the grassroots.

To gain a better understanding of Cyclone Idai, we have to look at the interplay of actions taken by the government before, during and after the storm.

I have three simple questions: What risk assessment was conducted by the government? Which risk management actions did the authorities implement? What risk communication strategy did the Zimbabwean leaders adopt?

The “command-and-control” approach to governance is not always the best instrument for tackling disaster risk management. It may work well in mobilising fickle crowds during election campaigns, but it is woefully inadequate in situations that demand devolved leadership rather than centralised power.

Disaster governance can be segmented into five main components: prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.
Natural disasters—caused by geological, hydro-meteorological, climate change, or biological factors—cannot be completely avoided, if at all.

Mitigation empowers communities to reduce the impact of disasters. This is where environmental policy, awareness campaigns and practical de-risking techniques come into the picture.

We have to remember that in disaster management, the aspect of preparedness only comes into the scheme of things when concrete plans and actions are being implemented to create a sustainable transition from the response stage to the recovery phase. Recovery comes at the tail-end, with the ultimate objective of assisting the affected communities to salvage livelihoods leading to a desirable quality of life.

Cyclone Idai was impossible to prevent. But many lives could have been saved.

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