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Disaster management

A disaster can be caused by humans or nature. Disasters are events that are sometimes unpredictable. It is important for any government to manage disasters. Government provides legislation, allocates resources and does rational planning and sustainable development. Disaster management and planning is a key part of government work.

This guide includes the following:

  1. The importance of disaster management plans
  2. The role of municipalities in disaster management
  3. What does it mean when a place is declared a disaster area?
  4. Identifying potential disaster hazards in your area
  5. Preventing disasters in your households and communities: What to do
  6. How can we prevent fire disasters?

  1. The importance of putting disaster management plans in place

Disasters are events that have a huge impact on humans and/or the environment. Disasters require government intervention. They are not always unpredictable. Floods take place in valleys and flood plains, droughts in areas with unstable and low rainfall, and oil spills happen in shipping lanes. This predictability provides opportunities to plan for, prevent and to lessen the impact of disasters.

Disasters arise from both natural and human causes, and the responses needed could stretch community and government capacity to the limit. For example, during 2000 we saw a series of disasters in South Africa: huge floods devastated the Limpopo Province, Mpumalanga and neighbouring countries; massive fires and an oil spill threatened Cape Town; and separate floods hit rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. In 2004 Cape Town experienced a drought disaster attributed to global warming. From April 2004 to January 2005, the province experiences 376 disasters, mostly fire and flood.

Disasters are inevitable although we do not always know when and where they will happen. But their worst effects can be partially or completely prevented by preparation, early warning, and swift, decisive responses.

Disaster management aims to reduce the occurrence of disasters and to reduce the impact of those that cannot be prevented. The government White paper and Act on Disaster Management define the roles of Local Authorities as well as Provincial and National government in disaster management.

  1. The role of municipalities in disaster management

Every municipality must have a disaster management plan as part of its Integrated Development Plans, according to the Municipal Systems Act.

Structure and Mechanism: This plan must set up the structure and mechanisms for dealing with disasters and it must anticipate future disasters. Plans must be developed to deal with disasters that occur regularly - for example flooding of informal settlements and roads.

Protection Services Department: In each municipality, the Protection Services department is responsible for Disaster Management. The department usually deals with traffic policing, fire brigades, law enforcement, and sometimes ambulances on an agency basis for provincial government, The role of Disaster Management is to coordinate the response to disasters and emergencies, ensuring that resources are applied effectively, whatever it may be. Fire services, ambulance services, emergency medical services, engineers and traffic services can all become involved in Disaster Management.

Capacity: When a disaster exceeds the capacity of a local authority, the district, province or national can become involved, coordinating and facilitating the response and efforts of various local authorities. Other parties such as the SANDF as well as volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross, St John's and the National Sea Rescue Institute can also be drawn in if needed.

Disaster Management Activities: Disaster Management Activities include the co-ordination of disaster response agencies, the compilation and exercising of contingency plans, and Disaster Management education and training.

Funding: Following the finalisation of the Act, the national government will announce on a funding mechanism for provinces and municipalities to finance their comprehensive disaster management plans.

  1. What does it mean when a place is declared a disaster area?

The disaster management policy and legislation makes provision for government to declare disaster areas, and allow for resources to be allocated for immediate relief, as well as reconstruction. This includes things like food, blankets and medical supplies as relief and building materials for reconstruction. The local and provincial government have to prepare the submission to the national Department of Provincial and Local Government for this to be done speedily.

The Disaster Management Act focuses on speeding up response and cutting red tape to ensure that disasters are dealt with efficiently and effectively - by giving clear guidelines for the classification of disasters and the declaration of states of disaster.

  1. Identifying potential disaster hazards in your area

These can include all or some of the following:


  1. Preventing disasters in your households and communities:

What to do

"In South Africa, it is not necessarily the 'classic', comparatively rare events - which receive massive media coverage - that we should be focusing on, but rather on building alert, informed, self-reliant and resilient communities who have the capacity to withstand, cope and recover from these relatively less spectacular events which affect them on a regular basis"

Pat Reid, former president of Disaster Management of Southern Africa. (SAPA. 3 January 2004)

Role of organisations and community workers

Here are some of the things development workers can advise communities to prepare and deal with disasters:


  1. How can we prevent fire disasters?

A very important way of preventing fire disasters is to have a good disaster plan in place. The emphasis should be on public education, prevention and containment.

One of the common disasters in poor areas and informal settlements are fires. These fires are often caused by accidents with paraffin or candles. The Paraffin industry is involved in the "Ufudo" campaign. Because of the building practices in informal settlements, and the building materials used in these settlements, everyday tools such as a primus stove, paraffin lamp or candle can become extremely dangerous if used incorrectly. The "Ufudo" kits provide tools to make primus stoves, paraffin lamps and candles more stable and less prone to fall over.

The Paraffin Safety Association also promotes safe storage and use of paraffin through safe bottles and dispensers - any registered dealer can get access to this.

People in informal settlements should be educated about leaving enough space between houses to prevent the spread of fires and to allow emergency vehicles into the area. Fire fighting volunteers can also be trained.


Cape Metropolitan Council Public Safety Advisories. Frequently Asked Questions on Disaster Management
South African Health Review 2000. Chapter 24-Disaster Management.



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