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Disaster Mitigation & Prevention in Southern Africa
Georgia Shaver, Regional Manager for Southern Africa
UN World Food Programme


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Honourable Members of Parliament
Distinguished Participants

It is a pleasure to be here today to talk about disaster mitigation and prevention in Southern Africa. This is a subject that we must take an interest in because this region is particularly prone to many types of disasters throughout a year.

And no matter how strong a country may be, disasters expose the economic and social vulnerabilities, and can potentially extend beyond national frontiers and become a regional issue.

Before launching into a quick analysis of disasters and what prevention and mitigation means, allow me to say a few words about the UN Programme that I represent and why should a World Food Programme representative be in a position to talk about this subject.


The World Food Programme is the food aid arm of United Nations. People are the focus of our assistance and combating hunger is our mandate.

In 1999 WFP provided food assistance to save the lives of 29 million internally displaced, refugees and returnees who lost their homes due to civil war and political conflict. During the same time, WFP also assisted 41 million victims of natural disasters such as earthquakes, severe floods and drought. Of this, 19 million people were assisted through development programmes receiving aid in food-for-work projects to promote agriculture, improve the environment and in human resource projects such as school feeding, health and nutrition.

We focus on women who are the key to prudent management of scarce resources and sustaining household food security. We help to meet the food and nutritional needs of young children and expectant and nursing mothers. We work with the poor to invest in human capital through education, training, and to gain and preserve assets, thereby shifting to more sustainable livelihoods. And we work to mitigate the effects of natural disasters, in areas vulnerable to recurring crises of this kind.

WFP-assisted activities are always nationally executed, also implementing projects in partnership with grass root institutions such as national or international NGOs.

Local and regional food procurement options are prioritised when planning the activities. As a multi-lateral agency, cash and food resources come from the international donor community – all contributions are voluntary.

In Southern Africa WFP has programmes in Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. From Mozambique we also cover Madagascar. And in Zimbabwe we have our regional food procurement office. WFP’s notable involvement in disasters over the years, in this region, have included Angola’s war displaced, support to Mozambican IDPs and refugees, the Southern Africa drought during both 80s and the early 90s, refugee support, El Nino contingency planning in 1997 and most recently the Mozambique and Madagascar floods.

Currently WFP is working closely with the Governments of Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia to develop disaster management policy and plans, strengthen disaster management institutions, and use food-for-assets and food-for-training to help communities strengthen their capacity to prepare for and mitigate the effects of natural disasters. We also provide support to build local capacity in vulnerability assessment and mapping, emergency preparedness and response. Our programmes also promote stronger inter-sector and donor cooperation and collaboration.

WFP is committed to work with national programmes that actively promote an agenda that highlights proactive initiatives to reduce vulnerability to disasters.


Between 1970 and 1994, statistics show that at least 134 million people have been either killed, injured or made homeless due to natural disasters. More than 95% of all deaths caused by disasters occurred in developing countries.

From 1990 to 1994, the economic cost to industrialised countries affected by disasters was estimated to be more that US$ 535 million a year. The economic and social setback of Mozambique as a result of this year’s floods has been calculated at US$ 520 million.

Southern Africa is a region highly prone to a variety of hazards including drought, floods, cyclones, earthquakes, pest infestation, epidemics and environmental accidents, including landmines. Many disasters over the years can be characterised as "acts of God". Yet poor farming practices and management of the natural resources, extensive periods of conflict and population displacement have undoubtedly contributed to the impact of the disaster.

Undoubtedly, climatic variability is a major problem for Southern Africa. The majority of the population is still largely rural and directly and in-directly dependent on rain-fed agriculture and livestock.

In addition many of these people continue to live below the poverty line. They lack resources, access to education, information and to political and economic advantages. The capacity to absorb, deflect or manage potential or actual disasters is reduced. And their vulnerability increases. The loss in terms of life, property, infrastructure and environment is the result. To the extreme, peoples’ capacity to cope using its own resources may be completely destroyed.

In Southern Africa there is a wealth of information about what happens when disasters occur. We may even know about where a disaster is likely to occur and how often. But how much progress has been made in being more proactive in dealing with disasters – to anticipate and to minimise the impact by focusing on preparedness and mitigation programmes? Do we recognise that disaster management is developmental and not just an emergency to be dealt with when it arises?


At the World Conference on Natural Disaster Management held in 1994, all countries were called upon to implement an agreed plan of action during the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction from 1994 to 2004.

In this plan of action each country has the responsibility to protect its people, infrastructure and other national assets from natural disasters. Disaster prevention and preparedness should be considered integral aspects of development planning. Risk assessment programmes and emergency plans should be developed. There should be a national institution responsible for disaster prevention, preparedness and response.

Environmental impact assessments should feature in development plans to mitigate disasters. Regional centres for disaster reduction should be set-up or strengthened if they already exist. And the UN and donors should increase the priority on disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

Government’s in Southern Africa have committed and subscribed to this plan of action. A review conference planned for 2004 will gauge each country’s commitment and the results achieved in implementing the plan.

Especially over the last five years or so, many countries in Southern Africa have made significant advances in disaster management and related vulnerability issues.

Policy and legislation has been adopted, disaster management institutions created, and coordination strengthened within Government and with the international community, private sector and civil society.

Disaster plans have been designed for all levels that address prevention/mitigation of, preparedness for and response to disasters. Reserves in cash, food and non-food have been introduced into national/local budgets.

The issues of vulnerability and disaster preparedness and mitigation are being raised more frequently through the educational system and the public domain, such as the media and the internet.

Tools have been acquired and people trained in risk mapping, early warning and contingency planning.

Regional structures such as SADC have begun to prioritise disaster management by identifying human and financial resources to strengthen information sharing and natural resource management. The effective use of military assets in disaster response is also being examined by SADC.

But clearly there are still many hurdles to jump and gaps to fill as this year’s flood emergency demonstrated. Have we learned any lessons from this latest emergency?

Southern Africa is only a few months away from the next rainy season and rumours have it that the season will once again be above normal. Therefore can we say with confidence that those countries at high risk already have available or are working on preparedness and mitigation plans? Are funds and human resources lined up and people informed on how to minimise risk and reduce vulnerability? Are regional networks being strengthened for early warning, water management and information sharing? Are we being pro-active?

Or is everyone so tired from the last emergency or so overly optimistic that it can’t possibly flood again, preferring to adopt the wait and see attitude? Knowing that it will make the headlines and be more easily funded by the international community?


While natural disasters bring grief, they also bring opportunity. On the one hand, they wake us up to the reality and test the validity of current policy, planning and technologies, and expose their weaknesses. On the other hand, they strengthen national and regional collaboration as old partnerships are renewed and new partnerships emerge – especially between all levels of Government and civil society and the private sector.

Although short-term measures are visible and draw attention, it is the long-term commitment and concerted effort to investing in the long-term activities that are the foundation for reduction of poverty for the sustainable ending of hunger.

Let us start with the people. As Parliamentarians you know the important role that people play in building a strong nation. You also know the importance of being accountable to those who have chosen you for this position. You provide an essential link between the national plans and programmes and their impact on and the participation of the public. You can also influence the plans and programmes by bringing the voice of the people to the negotiating table. PEOPLE HAVE PROFOUND KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING OF DISASTERS INCLUDING THEIR MANAGEMENT. WE CAN LEARN FROM THEM, WE CAN DRAW PRACTICAL GUIDE AND ACTION THROUGH THEIR PARTICIPATION.

Public information and awareness programmes are fundamental to a strong disaster preparedness and response. People on the ground need to know what provisions are available for disaster management in their communities. And community objectives, priorities and needs need to be communicated to national level officers so that informed decisions can be made. Public awareness needs to be two-way and continuous in normal times – when no disasters have occurred. The use of the media can play a powerful role – especially radio programmes in local languages.

Start putting disaster information and advocacy on your agenda when consulting your constituents. Community initiative needs to be encouraged and people empowered to take responsibility, within their own capacities, to protect their own lives and property. There are many actions that can be taken at minimal or no cost. Some suggestions include setting up local structures to raise alarm and maintaining lists of vulnerable groups who would require special assistance. Identifying evacuation sites, maintaining canals, dykes and dams through self-help and food-for-work, preparing checklists of action to take at certain times of the year can be very effective. And listing available assets that can be tapped (a boat, a storage facility, a truck), what normal traditional coping mechanisms exist and regularly passing on this and other information to those who are planning and in charge of early warning can help improve national planning.

As Members of Parliament you can also ensure that disaster planning, preparedness and mitigation information and awareness is an integral part of extension work being carried out by sector specialists, as well as in the school curriculum. Targeting youth can certainly have generational effects and lasting results.

In California where earthquakes are unfortunately all too common, school children are trained well in prevention and response. Rushing under their desks or standing in the door frame at the first quake, and bringing extra water and long-shelf food to school in case they can’t make it home is like second nature to them.

It is in making the disaster a common place feature in one’s life in terms of our action and reaction that challenge can be surmounted.

On the national scale, one must encourage that appropriate legislation and regulations are already in place to strengthen national capacity to prepare and respond, as well as to ensure that people do not degrade their environment to see through short-run problems. The armed forces have to be legislated to act and assist during a disaster as they have much to offer in the area of engineering, transport, logistics support and ensuring the security of public and private property. The Police and other emergency services such as the fire brigade must also be aware of their roles in preparedness and response. Make insurance available at affordable prices so that people’s efforts to improve their lives can be compensated when a disaster hits.

Government Ministries have to play an active role in implementing disaster management programmes, especially where professional and technical expertise is required. Each Ministry needs to appoint a focal point responsible for promoting and coordinating the Ministry’s defined roles and responsibilities that will be detailed in a national plan. The appointment of a senior Government official responsible for coordination with the international community and the media can facilitate communication and ensure the quality and accuracy of the information.

Of course sustainable funding sources will be necessary to raise the level of human resources available to do assessments, provide training, ensure the availability of information and communications systems, etc. As key players in approving budgets you need to endorse financial resources for disaster management, preparedness and prevention. You must also encourage private and international donors to channel contributions to this sound investment.

National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies can make valuable contributions in all aspects of disaster reduction, as their outreach to communities is strong. As MPs you should support these national societies ensuring that they do have the means to carry out their important tasks. If their profile is too low then raise it. Volunteer to partake in their activities to have a better understanding and appreciation of their work. Encourage students to internship to cross-fertilize the skills and the practice.

At regional level make sure that disaster reduction debates are held and that regional structures are put into place. Of great importance is the regular sharing of information on, for example, weather, dam and river levels, and pest infestation. Improved management of cross-border natural resources such as water is essential, especially after this year’s flooding. The endorsement of agreements and protocols enabling the formation of regional response mechanisms, especially involving armed forces support, the creation of rapid response teams, making available food and non-food stocks, etc. is also urgently required.

Take the opportunity of this forum to share experiences with colleagues from other countries and to create inter-country/regional networks to keep the information flows open and to tap unknown opportunities.

Finally as fathers and mothers, members of the community, religious groups or private companies, as up-standing citizens you can ensure that these various groups to which you belong integrate the knowledge about disaster preparedness and mitigation into their personal plans or that of the organisation.


To conclude, Southern Africa has the potential to fast become a leading region in the debate and application of good disaster preparedness, mitigation and response practices.

The commitment of each country to reduce the individual and national vulnerability to disasters and the sharing of information and experience can only lead to a strengthened regional capacity. As important leaders in your individual countries, your continuous contribution and support is essential for success. This investment can only reap benefits, in both the short and long term.

There are so many things that you can do to raise awareness, empower the people, exchange and share the information and experiences and make disaster preparedness and prevention an integral part of development programming in the context of poverty reduction.