Thomson Reuters Foundation, trust.org (TRF)
Dar es Salaam - In the face of a growing threat from extreme weather, Tanzania's parliament has adopted a law to help authorities cope with emergencies and shield vulnerable communities from disaster risks.
The new legislation, which tries to bridge gaps in the country's ability to deal with both natural and human-made disasters, creates a new agency to manage disasters.
The Disaster Management Agency (DMA) will oversee efforts to prevent damage and deal with the impacts of floods, drought, hail, storms and hunger, as well as managing the stocking of supplies to aid effective response.
Tanzania is becoming increasingly vulnerable to floods, droughts and tropical storms that have affected lives and livelihoods and destroyed infrastructure while causing food insecurity and health problems. The frequency of such disasters, according to the United Nations, has inflicted huge losses on communities while straining the country's humanitarian response capacity.
Jenister Mhagama, a Minister of State in the Prime Minister's office responsible for policy coordination, said the new law will improve the government's ability to anticipate and deal with disasters.
"We would have in place efficient early warning systems at regional and district levels so that local authorities can prepare for and respond to disasters timely and effectively," she said.
According to the minister, the agency will have the power to order evacuations of people from disaster-prone areas as well as suspend or limit the sale or transport of alcohol, firearms and other products in disaster areas.
According to the government, criminals have often taken advantage of disasters to engage in looting or to hoard essential supplies, keeping them from reaching disaster-affected communities. The new law aim to deal with that problem.
The law also paves the way for establishment of a much-needed Disaster Management Fund, whose monies would be used to finance relief services and help disaster-affected communities.
Currently, Tanzania's disaster management activities are centrally coordinated by the Disaster Management Department (DMD) under the Prime Minister's office. A study by the U.N. Development Programme three years ago, however, revealed widespread weaknesses in disaster prevention and management strategies.
Those included a failure to earmark land where flood waters could be diverted, or introduce technological solutions to avert flooding, such as building flood levees.
"One of the things the things we need to do is to give our local authorities more powers to handle emergency situations so that people can access essential services when disasters happen," Mhagama said.
Under the new law, regional and district committees under the disaster agency will have the power to order evacuations or use financial and other resources at their disposal to take immediate action, rather than waiting for federal approval.
Preparedness measures highlighted in the new policy include creating more effective and accurate communication plans, training staff, maintaining levels of emergency supplies such as tents and food, and ensuring early warning systems, emergency shelters and evacuation plans are in place.
Critics, however, doubt whether the proposed measures will be adequate to deal with a spate of worsening weather-related disasters, such as a deadly hail storm and flooding that killed 47 people and displaced 5,000 in Shinyanga last month.
"I don't believe we have (in the past) adequately met the standard procedures needed to offset or reduce disaster risks. Our institutions are still very poor in terms of skills, resources and manpower," James Mbatia, a legislator and disaster management expert, said on a television news programme.
In an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Masozi Nyirenda, a disaster management expert with the Tanzania Education Authority said the new policy will work only if it makes Tanzania more proactive in dealing with disasters.
"We mainly wait until the disaster has occurred and we act on recovery. We do not respond quickly enough to save lives and property loss," he said.
Nyirenda said most disaster management units such as fire and police receive inadequate budget resources to allow them to deal with a surge in disasters.
"Our disaster units do not have relevant equipment to support their fast response to disaster. Fire engines are outdated (and) there are few ambulances, boats, helicopters, which in many instances has resulted into loss of lives and property," Nyirenda said.
He said lack of planning in towns and cities has resulted in more home construction in low-lying areas at risk from flooding and other problems.
"The urban planning system, which could have supported effective disaster management, is very poor. In most of the places the houses are too congested, such that during emergencies the rescue operations become very difficult. Disasters such as fire, flood, or disease outbreaks can be intensified in such areas," he said.
(Reporting by Kizito Makoye; editing by Laurie Goering)