East Africa has in recent weeks been on the receiving end of major effects of climate change, suffering massive flooding and landslides.
Tens of people have died and thousands more rendered homeless with economic losses rising daily across the region.
These calamities have severely hit the region’s most vulnerable. Homes, roads, farms and sanitation facilities have been destroyed, eroding the recovery capacity of the region’s poor, further weakening their coping and survival mechanisms.
Yet scientists predict that this is the future. That climate change will trigger weather-induced disasters in the form of cyclic droughts, floods and other phenomena. Experts warn that complex humanitarian emergencies arising from conflicts as being experienced in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Somalia, will exacerbate the effects of these natural calamities.
This is why reports of another emergence of the deadly Ebola virus in the DR Congo and cholera in Uganda this week are deeply unsettling. It is also worrying that our governments seem to have been caught off-guard — once again — by these natural disasters going by the pace of response which at best can be described as inadequate.
For instance, why were vulnerable communities living in well known high flood and landslide risk zones across the region not evacuated even as heavy rains were predicted?
Cases of buildings and roads collapsing due to heavy rains also reflect a huge gap not only in standards of construction but also supervision of construction sites. Yet governments have a key responsibility to protect citizens by creating a facilitating environment in which people can be empowered to prevent or reduce natural disaster risks.
Failure by our governments to hold culpable people accountable means our societies remain vulnerable. The existing gaps in disaster management have sparked fears that the region may be ill-prepared to deal with the next crisis should the authorities in DR Congo fail to contain the Ebola resurgence.
Our disaster management agencies rarely anticipate risk or enforce prevention mechanisms. The focus is on recovery. This is because they often work in isolation and are not adequately resourced for quick response to avert disaster or minimise shocks.
Yet studies show that the ability of people to take informed actions to secure their safety also depends on the availability of timely and targeted information. Another crucial missing link is strengthening of traditional coping strategies and preservation of local knowledge and experience that underlie these survival mechanisms.
Inadequate financing due to low priority in national budgeting; lack of dedicated disaster funding mechanisms; and limited use of risk spreading are also at play here.
Experts insist on a holistic approach: From, macroeconomic policies that will shield the economy from natural calamity-related shocks; generation of resources and incentives for mitigation; key sectoral policies on food and agriculture, rural and urban development and enterprise development, to temper vulnerability to natural calamities. Also needed are tax or financial incentives to promote the use of engineered and disaster-resistant construction.
This calls for political commitment and a mindset shift by our governments.