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Floods, droughts, poverty and science

W.J.R. Alexander, Professor Emeritus, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Pretoria.


Poverty is tearing Africa apart. It is the root cause of internal unrest, cross-border conflicts, land redistribution problems and political instability in many African countries. Natural disasters (principally floods and droughts) are often the triggering mechanism for the downward spiral of impoverishment and eventually to anarchy if not brought under control. Is there anything that scientists can do to check and reverse this trend?

Budapest Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge
A combined UNESCO/ICSU World Conference on Science was held in Budapest, Hungary from 26 June to 1 July 1999. The following are extracts from the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge produced by the Conference.

We seek active collaboration across all fields of scientific endeavour, i.e. the natural sciences such as the physical, earth and biological sciences, the biomedical and engineering sciences, and the social and human sciences…Greater interdisciplinary efforts…are a prerequisite for dealing with ethical, social, cultural, environmental, gender, economic, and health issues…What distinguishes the poor (be they people or countries) from the rich is not only that they have fewer assets, but also that they are largely excluded from the creation and benefits of scientific knowledge…

The declaration considered that:
…scientific research and its application may yield significant returns towards economic growth, sustainable human development, including poverty alleviation, and that the future of humankind will become more dependent on the equitable production, distribution and use of knowledge than ever before…

International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction
The United Nations declared the period 1990 to 2000 to be the International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). The objectives of the IDNDR were that by the year 2000, all countries, as part of their plan to achieve sustainable development should have in place comprehensive national assessments of risks from natural hazards integrated into development plans; mitigation plans at national and/or local levels that address long-term prevention, preparedness, and community awareness; and ready access to global, regional, national and local warning systems. 

These objectives were not achieved in most developing countries of the world where there is the greatest need. During January to March 2000, severe, widespread floods occurred over large parts of the summer rainfall region of Southern Africa. They were described as the worst humanitarian disaster to occur in Southern Africa. Lives were lost, several hundred bridges were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people had to abandon their homes. Mozambique was particularly affected and the dramatic scenes of helicopter rescues received worldwide coverage. Families were reluctant to abandon their homes until there was no alternative. They were then transferred to refugee camps where they were provided with food, medicine and shelter. They later returned to their abandoned homes. These were often either destroyed by the floods or stripped of all possessions by vandals. They had to build up their lives all over again. In many cases they were forced to move to the nearest cities to seek employment that was seldom available.

In August 2001, only eighteen months later, heavy rain fell over the Cape Flats in the vicinity of Cape Town. Ten thousand people were reported homeless and 6 000 shacks were swamped with water and were uninhabitable. The first on the scene were the Red Cross and the Salvation Army who provided food, blankets and organised shelter. Many affected families preferred to stay in their waterlogged homes rather than move to more comfortable shelters so that they could protect their meagre belongings. The local and national disaster management agencies organised temporary alternative housing. The area was declared a national disaster area, which released state funds. These will be used to provide permanent accommodation in safer areas. No information is available on whether or not the relocation will improve the quality of life of the refugees.

During the same month there were newspaper reports of severe flooding in southeast Asia. Cambodian authorities were reported to have warned thousands of villagers fleeing from floods not to swamp the capital after police used water cannon and electric prods to disperse crowds of homeless people. This was reported to be a sign of desperation in the region where floods have killed dozens, left hundreds of thousands homeless and caused widespread damage. 

Is there a solution?

Disasters are not increasing because of the increase in the frequency of hazards, but due to the increasing vulnerability to hazards. The increase in vulnerability to disasters in many developing countries of Africa arises from the following repetitive sequence. Growing population - increasing utilisation of natural resources - collapse of natural ecosystems - hunger and malnutrition - migration to the cities - unplanned occupation of high risk peri-urban areas - few employment opportunities, and rising crime rate as a means of survival - breakdown of civil administration - political instability.
These symptoms are present in many African countries.

It is clearly impossible for the State to accept responsibility for every disaster that may befall its individual citizens. It is equally clear that the State has responsibilities for implementing disaster mitigation measures for larger, highly vulnerable communities. The difficult issue of drawing the line between helping the people to help themselves and making the people dependent on the State for the rest of their lives is well documented. The objective of State assistance should be such that it increases the resilience of vulnerable communities without encouraging long-term dependence on the State. 

The situation in most countries on the African continent continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate. After a disaster it is imperative that authorities make every effort to restore the affected communities to at least their pre-disaster status as soon as possible. This includes activities to combat malnutrition, disease, loss of livelihoods, and migration to areas that are perceived to be less vulnerable to disasters. Failure to do so will increase their vulnerability to future climatic extremes.

If the principles of natural disaster reduction - particularly vulnerability reduction methods - are not included in national policies, the slide from democracy to civil unrest will affect an increasing number of countries on the African continent.

The African Renaissance
The African Renaissance is a political initiative that has wide popular and scientific support. The concept is simple - Africa must rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of poverty and join the other continents as an equal partner. This goal will be difficult to achieve in practice, and care will have to be taken not to compartmentalize research. The emphasis will have to be on inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional studies involving a wide range of disciplines.

Selected references
Alexander W. J. R. (2001) Flood risk reduction measures, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa.
Heinsohn R D and Huggins G (1998) Social impact studies and public participation. Civil Engineering. South Africa
Hora B (1999) Disaster reduction and public health. World Health Organization report presented to the IDNDR/UNEP meeting in Nairobi.
IDNDR (1994) Information Paper No. 4, Disasters around the world - a global and regional view. Yokohama, Japan
IDNDR (1999) Proceedings of the regional meeting for Africa. Nairobi, Kenya
International Fund for Agricultural Development (1994) Development and the vulnerability of rural households to drought: issues and lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa. IDNDR World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, Yokohama 
Kishk M A (1996) Poverty, hunger and land degradation, which comes first? Agro-sociological case study of the small Egyptian farmers. In STOP DISASTERS No. 31, 1997.
Lass W, Reusswig F, and Kühn K D (1998) Disaster vulnerability and "sustainable development" German IDNDR Series 14e.
Laye O (1999) Socio-economic conditions and disaster risk management in Africa. Economic Commission for Africa. Report presented to the IDNDR/UNEP meeting in Nairobi.
United Nations (1994) Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action for a Safer World. Yokohama, Japan
von Kotze A and Holloway A (1996) Reducing risk - participatory learning activities for disaster mitigation in Southern Africa International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Department of Adult and Community Education, University of Natal, South Africa
Vogel C (1998) Disaster management in South Africa. South African Journal of Science, Vol. 94 March 1998




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