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Emergency preparedness and disaster planning in Africa

18th September 2012

By: In On Africa IOA


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Countries worldwide are regularly touched by a variety of manmade and natural crises including such events as the West African food crisis of 2012, Hurricane Katrina in 2007, and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. It is important for Governments and citizens to know how to effectively manage and respond to these types of events. However, for a variety of reasons many countries are not prepared to respond to unexpected disaster events. This unpreparedness has been an issue across the African continent, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where disaster management systems have either been non-existent or inadequate.(2) Many countries have either not incorporated preparedness planning into their overall country disaster management agendas or their plans are not very effective at achieving their goals.(3) This is troubling because each year nations in Africa are at increased risk as they are faced with an ever growing assortment of natural and man-made hazards, more than any other continent.(4) Being prepared to respond quickly and effectively to different disaster events, and reduce their impact, is vital. In the developing world this is especially the case because economic instability and lower levels of development mean that countries and their people are typically more vulnerable to the shocks of disasters than those in the developed world.(5)

This paper provides an overview of the role that emergency preparedness plays in reducing and managing the negative impact of disasters before, during and after they occur. It examines challenges to disaster management strategies, particularly preparedness planning, in Africa, primarily referring to the two major natural crises that most affect the continent, drought and flooding. Future improvements to disaster planning and how effective these plans are in saving lives and reducing risk are also discussed. The case of South Africa is examined because it provides a clear example of an African state that is working to meet the challenges of preparedness in the face of both natural and man-made hazards.


Emergency preparedness and disaster response

Preparedness is a field encompassing multiple components and definitions, and perhaps the most recognised definition of disaster management is from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). According to the UNDP disaster management is “‘the body of policy and administrative decisions and operational activities which pertain to the various stages of a disaster at all levels’.”(6) The figure below depicts the most commonly known phases of the emergency and disaster management cycle. Part A depicts the pre-disaster reduction phase and part B shows the post-disaster recovery phase. These two phases encompass the main areas of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.(7) Preparedness plans at international and national levels are typically structured around these phases.


The emergency management cycle (Fig 1) (8)

Additionally, there are specific events or situations that must be understood and incorporated into preparedness planning if this planning is to be effective. Some of the most important of these include disaster, hazard, structural/physical vulnerability and human vulnerability, which the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies define as flows.(9) Disaster is defined as a major disturbance, man-made or natural, that negatively impacts societal and economic functioning resulting in severe losses that are beyond the community’s ability to function under its own resources or power. The aforementioned 2004 Tsunami is an example of a disaster situation. Hazard may at times be used interchangeably with disaster, but is typically considered a potential episode or experience that might negatively affect regular community or individual functioning and result in an official disaster event. An example might include the occurrence of a tornado that does not cause extreme property loss or death. Structural/physical vulnerability is the scope of damage that might be incurred should a hazard occur. Knowledge of the existence of structural or physical vulnerabilities helps locate potential areas that might be more susceptible to the greater impact of a disaster related event, such as poorly structured housing communities. Finally, human vulnerability refers to a human being’s ability to deal with disaster related events before, during, and after they occur. Socio-economic issues, including poverty, are an example of factors that can increase this vulnerability.

Emergency management on the African continent

In Africa the frequency at which hazards are occurring is on the rise.(10) These include some of those major hazardssuch as drought and flooding, health epidemics like HIV/AIDS, or intermittent hazards like earthquakes and fires which can lead to the occurrence of disasters.(11) Two of the most severe hazards resulting in disaster situation are currently present in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2012, East Africa continues to face a growing drought which is hitting two of the continent’s poorest nations, Somalia and South Sudan.(12) As mentioned above, there is also the ongoing food crisis in the Sahel Region of West Africa which has left some 18 million people without adequate food supplies.(13) The chart below illustrates how many people were affected by natural disasters in Africa over just a 30 year period, and as evidenced by the abovementioned situations, these numbers continue to grow.

Number of people affected by natural disasters (Fig 2) (14)

The sheer number of people and vast areas affected by each of these events highlights the need for adequate plans to address the crises at hand. However, the problem facing many countries is that their disaster management systems are ineffective or non-existent.(15) Some of the qualities that render disaster management ineffective are a lack of adequate funding or the planning needed to prepare for and reduce the impact of hazardous events.(16) Kenya provides an example of how these two issues can create an environment which perpetuates the stalling of planning and contributes to the high cost of disaster. From 1999 to 2001 a terrible drought cost the country approximately US$ 340 million. This was a cost that could have been cut in half had the Government had a better preparedness plan in place.(17) The initial lack of spending on preparedness planning only contributed to the cost of the disaster and it also may mean that the additional money spent on that disaster may only further reduce potential funding for better planning.

In addition to the immediate costs incurred, disasters also have long-term detrimental effects on economic growth and development. However, consideration of the longer term impacts of disasters and preparedness planning are largely lacking in disaster management strategies in Africa. A 2004 New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) baseline study (18) on the status of disaster risk and reduction in Africa shows that when planning many Governments are not taking into account the impact of disaster related events on economic growth and stability. Additionally, there are few incentives in place promoting disaster prevention activities that are meant to help strengthen structural development and food security. Levels of development vary across countries making it difficult to adapt general risk management strategies to specific contextual demands. Also, the preparedness planning that does exist often only addresses the two major natural crises that most affect Africa, drought and flooding. There is little or no focus on the need to address smaller crisis events. Finally, there are usually inadequate financial resources allocated to disaster planning either because there is no funding available or because preparedness planning is not a main national budget concern.

Emergency preparedness and disaster response in South Africa

The aforementioned terms and processes provide a basic framework for beginning an understanding of how the emergency management process unfolds. However, the specific context in which the disaster occurs, that is its location and the circumstances under which it occurs, determines how the planning actually takes place. In the past, in southern Africa in particular, there has been less of a policy focus on the discipline of disaster reduction and preparedness than elsewhere in the world.(19) This might be attributed in part to Africa’s somewhat unique risk potential and the role that international humanitarian assistance has played throughout disaster situations involving food crises and flooding.(20) South Africa provides an example of how an African nation is responding to its preparedness needs. It is a good case for examination because the country is regularly exposed to the most common natural hazards. Additionally, it is also in close proximity to several other countries and its stronger economic capability increases the potential of cross-border risks and its humanitarian obligations during a crisis.(21)

The realisation for a need to address disaster risk issues led to the creation of the Disaster Management Act of 2002.(22) The legislation seeks to help better coordinate and manage risk reduction policy, increase effective response, establish national and local response centres and organise disaster responders.(23) It also addresses and acknowledges the variety of disasters that can occur within communities. South Africa’s preparedness plans continue to evolve as the Government learns more about how to plan for unforeseen circumstances that not only cause disturbances at the national level but also at the local municipal level.(24) There is also recognition of the need to have these plans developed by using input from a range of stakeholders, each of whom will be responsible for both understanding and implementing the disaster plan.(25)

In South Africa, Government departments work together and engage in disaster reduction activities. For example, the Department of Health has adapted indicators to review health hazards in communities and the Department of Agriculture has developed plans to aid communities when natural disasters threaten food production and supplies.(26) The Government is also working on hazard mapping and is conducting a vulnerability assessment to seek out the communities most open to danger in order to improve social development and integrate further disaster risk reduction.(27) Even non-governmental organisations and private businesses are working together to develop preparedness plans to help reduce risk. One such initiative is the Mandisa Project of the University of Cape Town’s Disaster Mitigation for Sustainable Livelihood Programme (DiMP), which has “developed a disaster risk information management system to track and represent small, medium and large-scale disaster events in the Cape Town Metropolitan Area.”(28)

However, despite South Africa’s demonstration of growth and improvements in disaster planning there is evidence that more still needs to be done. This need came to light in January 2011, when severe flooding throughout many parts of the country uncovered serious weaknesses in the country’s disaster plans.(29) Several lives were lost, thousands of homes were destroyed, and some US$ 280 million in damage was caused.(30) The disaster also highlighted additional problems like a lack of funding for proper management and the actual local and institutional capacity to carry out disaster management plans.(31)

Improvements in addressing preparedness

Even though more work is needed, in the last decade the understanding and implementation of hazard risk management strategies have expanded and improved.(32) At the local and regional levels African nations have been working together to address the potential problems posed by these hazards.(33)

Furthermore, the understanding and use of less conventional means of improving disaster response are increasing. It has been noted that the media plays an important role in disaster management both as a powerful tool for providing information and in encouraging a more rapid response, which in turn saves lives. Kakonge notes that it is thought that the disastrous aftermath of the 2007-2008 Kenyan elections was fuelled by poor media coverage in that these circumstances might have been mitigated by more accurate and coordinated coverage by national and international media outlets.(34) It appears that the event has sparked greater action to use the media and improve its role in disaster management across the continent.(35) A recent workshop held by the African Union brought together member state representatives and journalists to discuss the importance of the media and ways to use the media to raise awareness about disasters and improve community resilience in their aftermath.(36) Another example of improvement in disaster management and Government’s efforts to meet its disaster management goals is taking place in South Africa with the development of a new disaster and emergency management portal.(37) This new technology, developed by the Microsoft Corporation, is meant to help improve and coordinate inter-agency response during crisis situations.(38)

Concluding remarks

The African continent possesses a unique hazard risk profile that puts it in great need of well defined disaster reduction and development planning. Each region also possesses its own complex needs and barriers to reaching the appropriate levels of disaster planning and management. However, African nations are continuing to recognise the need for and are developing coordinating bodies and plans to improve emergency management at the international, regional, and local levels.

It has been established that Governments face several challenges such as higher vulnerability to disasters, lack of funding for implementation, and poor coordination at all levels of planning. In spite of these barriers, progress is being made to continually find new ways to increase awareness about disasters and to use technology to help save lives and mitigate the impact and cost of disaster events.

Written by Shannon Rupp (1)


(1) Contact Shannon Rupp through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) ‘Africa: Disaster preparedness “woefully inadequate”’, IRIN, 6 May 2009,
(3) ‘Africa regional strategy for disaster risk reduction’, NEPAD, July 2004,
(4) Ibid.
(5) ‘Africa: Disaster preparedness “woefully inadequate”’, IRIN, 6 May 2009,
(6) Vermaak, J. and van Niekerk, D., 2004. Disaster risk reduction initiatives in South Africa. Development Southern Africa, 21(3), pp. 555-574, p. 556.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.
(9) ‘Introduction to disaster preparedness’, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, June 2000,
(10) ‘Living with risk. A global review of disaster reduction initiatives’, United Nations, 2004,
(11) ‘Africa regional strategy for disaster risk reduction’, NEPAD, July 2004,
(12) Tisdall, S., ‘East Africa drought: the avoidable disaster’, The Guardian, 18 January 2012,
(13) ‘Updated: Growing West Africa food crisis’, Disasters Emergency Committee, 3 August 2012,
(14) ‘Natural disasters affect most of Africa’, UNEP, 2011,
(15) ‘Africa: Disaster preparedness “woefully inadequate”’, IRIN, 6 May 2009,
(16) Ibid.
(17) Ibid.
(18) ‘Africa regional strategy for disaster risk reduction’, NEPAD, July 2004,
(19) Vermaak, J. and van Niekerk, D., 2004. Disaster risk reduction initiatives in South Africa. Development Southern Africa, 21(3), pp. 555-574.
(20) Ibid.
(21) ‘Living with Risk. A global review of disaster reduction initiatives’, United Nations, 2004,; ‘Introduction: A policy framework for disaster management in South Africa’,
(22) Ibid.
(23) Sokupa, T., ‘Need for Disaster Preparedness’, Afesis, 30 August 2012,
(24) Ibid.
(25) Ibid.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Ibid.
(29) ‘South Africa: Floods highlight lack of disaster preparedness’, IRIN, 27 January 2011,
(30) Ibid.
(31) Ibid.
(32) ‘Living with Risk. A global review of disaster reduction initiatives’, United Nations, 2004,
(33) Ibid.
(34) Ibid.
(35) Ibid.
(36) ‘Journalists, others agree to Improve disaster risk reduction in West Africa’, ECOWAS, 2 July 2012,
(37) Redgard, A., ‘IS portal will expedite emergency response management’, 27 August 2012,
(38) Ibid.


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