Disaster preparedness in East Africa: Are we prepared for a tsunami?

Source(s): Society for International Development

By Ahmed Salim

Five months after floods in Dar es Salaam gridlocked the city and put a significant proportion of homes under water, recovery efforts have stalled. On May 7, 2012 The Guardian (Tanzanian) ran a story explaining how relocation efforts of flood victims were suspended due to a shortage of funds. For the displaced Tanzanians who have been living in temporary camps for four months, this was just a continuation of a long narrative of the lack of disaster preparedness, response and recovery in the country. That same week over 300 people were displaced and left homeless after the Nairobi River burst its banks into Mathare slum in Kenya. Heavy rains caused the floods that destroyed many homes late in the evening with people left completely unprepared and with no warning.

If you look at the frequency of disasters that have occurred in the world, one could argue that after Southeast Asia, East Africa is one of the more disaster prone regions in the world. Nature has been unkind to the Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA) and the physical and human damage has been significant. The lack of disaster response and preparedness has challenged the region for decades. Although a thin line exists between what is classified as a disaster or an accident the majority of events that occur in East Africa are disasters because lessons are not learnt from previous experiences, prevention, response and recovery remains very poor. The high frequency of calamitous events and the often poor official response seems to have created a deficit of trust between citizens and national authorities that are supposed to prepare and protect them from disasters. Rather than anticipating and mitigating disasters, the region has found itself constantly reacting to them.

East Africa is ill-prepared for future events because it is not learning from the past

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect for those who are involved in disaster preparedness is that the knowledge regarding the impact and trends concerning disasters today is far superior to what it was decades ago. Despite all this, the region does not seem to learn from painful experiences. The maritime disasters in Tanzania had overcrowding at the root of the problem. This repeated mistake in overcrowding is seen on buses as well, and symbolizes a lack of oversight and implementation of rules. In addition to this, buildings keep popping up in many cities in the region with no real verification if they meet safety requirements or not, resulting in collapsing buildings.

Compounding the issue further is the region’s dependence on external expertise for search and rescue missions. Calls for countries like Israel, South Africa, the United Kingdom and United States have been common and as a result knowing that East African authorities have recourse to such external expertise may be making them less inclined to develop local search and rescue capabilities. However, with more frequent and more intense weather events caused by global climate change, a different approach to disaster anticipation, response and management is warranted.

Anticipating new types of disasters, especially for the coastal cities of the region, and adapting to them will be crucial. This was demonstrated by the experience along the East African coast after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia. While it was hard to imagine that the coastlines of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania could be affected by a seaquake whose epicenter was many thousands of miles away, an estimated 80 people died when ripples of the tsunami wave reached Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania.

The tsunami scare in 2004 showed that many of the cities along the coast of eastern Africa are completely unprepared and vulnerable. Tsunami warnings in April 2012 also put the cities of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa on high alert. However, as people left the city en masse, Dar experienced traffic gridlock, trapping many on roads which would have been underwater had the tsunami actually happened. Partial responses to disaster management are likely to be ineffective at best.
Poor urban planning and inadequate equipment amplifies the impact of disasters

Kenya’s architecture association has previously said 65% of the country’s buildings do not meet the required standards. Whilst the trend in Nairobi is to build even taller office buildings, it is striking to note that the fire brigade is incapable of extinguishing a fire as high as the fifth floor of a building due to outdated equipment.

Such is the norm with many buildings in East Africa, and the same poor standards and approaches made towards the construction of buildings is made in the urban planning design of many cities and towns across the region.

Many of the new high-rises and skyscraper buildings rising up in the capital cities of East Africa are seen as symbols of development. However, look closer and one is confronted with tall buildings with no fire escapes or resting on uneven foundations. In Mnazi Moja, a neighborhood in the heart of Dar es Salaam, tall buildings nestle in very close proximity to smaller buildings, separated very narrow roads. Emergency response vehicles would have a lot of difficulty accessing those in need in the event of a catastrophe.

A common narrative following a disaster is how emergency response teams were unable to get to the victims. In 2009, a supermarket in central Nairobi caught fire resulting in between 25 and 30 deaths. The central fire brigade depot was less than half a kilometer from the scene of the but the fire fighters arrived late, in insufficient numbers and with limited equipment. In early 2012, another fire gutted several floors of a building in at almost exactly the same location in Nairobi. This time, the fire fighters who arrived on the scene did not have ladders that were tall enough nor water hoses with enough pressure to reach beyond the 3rd floor.

Urban planning is crucial in mitigating disasters and will have to be made a priority if governments want to build resilient and sustainable cities. ‘A city with tall buildings must be protected from tall fires.’ Indeed.

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