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Writing an action plan for disaster preparedness in Africa

Idris M. Nur

Many African countries suffer from drought, desertification, and other disasters that have created acute, large-scale food shortages in some countries, mounting food import bills, and increased dependence on food aid. Limited agricultural production inhibits Africa’s economic and social development and sustains the specter of famine and malnutrition. Many African countries, UN agencies, regional and international donors, and other organizations have made significant efforts to combat disasters in Africa, but each country must prepare its own disaster preparedness and response plan. The elements that should be included in such a plan are outlined. Disaster does not necessarily require costly services and equipment. Rather, it requires sensible analysis of possibilities with a view to determining how authority and responsibility for action should be delegated, what local human and material resources exist, and how they should be earmarked and deployed.

In Africa, the main causes of disaster are drought, locusts, wars, civil strife, floods, cyclones, food shortage, epidemics, and technological failure. Disasters have become the order of the day in Africa. They occur more often than they used to and are deadlier and more destructive. Disasters in Africa have caused disability, displacement, epidemics, health hazards, psychological problems, famine, malnutrition, and the deterioration of the environment.

Disasters take a severe toll on the world’s poorest continent. As a result, African countries suffer many deaths and development goals are often set back years. Population growth, urbanization, and development have increased vulnerability and the possibility of even greater tragedies.

Disasters in Africa

Climatic changes brought heavy rains in the late 1980s, but many African countries still suffer from drought and desertification. These and other disasters in the 1980s have led to acute, large-scale food shortages in some countries, mounting food import bills, and increased dependence on food aid. Limited agricultural production inhibits economic and social development and sustains the specter of famine, hunger, and malnutrition.

Africa’s population is growing 3.3 percent a year but growth in food production has not exceeded 2 percent and has decreased in per capita terms. At 26 percent, Africa’s urbanization rate remains the highest in the world, so the limited labor supply in rural areas has become a major problem. Increased demand for agricultural output to meet basic nutritional needs is a challenge to available resources. A disaster can endanger food supplies and thus the affected population’s nutritional status.

Bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections are capable of causing epidemics of disastrous proportions. Control of cholera, malaria, meningitis, and yellow fever is far from satisfactory in Africa. Surveillance and control technologies are not as widely and effectively used as they should be. National capabilities must be strengthened and technologies adapted to the national health systems. Africa’s health problems are exacerbated by a food crisis the proportions of which have grown because of the vast migration of people from rural to urban areas. This crisis is reflected in young people whose body weights are too small for their ages and in the malnourished people who fill refugee camps and swell the ranks of displaced persons.

The African continent has been vulnerable to many kinds of natural disaster. Drought has hit the Sahelian zone 20 times since the sixteenth century. The prolonged drought Africa is now experiencing is moving quickly beyond the Sahel toward southern and eastern Africa. Usable pastoral areas in arid and semiarid regions have been reduced an estimated 25 percent since the drought of 1968. It is generally believed that drought occurs somewhere in Africa every year, that drought affecting large areas of the continent occurs twice or more each decade, and that widespread, protracted drought occurs once every 30 years.

Today most desertification is caused by escalating human and livestock populations, overgrazing, expansion of agriculture, and demand for fuelwood. About 450 million Africans burn about 300 million cubic meters of firewood each year. In the first half of the 1980s, an estimated 742 million hectares - about 26 percent of Africa’s land area - were undergoing desertification. The desert is creeping into the land area at the rate of 6 million hectares a year.

Severe storms, heavy floods, and torrential rains have caused considerable damage to crops, physical infrastructure, and transport systems in Djibouti, Malawi, Somalia, Tanzania, and the Sudan. Between 1987 and 1989, 21 countries and 3.2 million people were affected by floods and 326 were killed.

Earthquakes are rare in most African countries. Exceptions are Algeria, where risks are high, and Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire, where they are lower. Volcanos erupted in Zaire in 1977 and in Cameroon in 1983 and 1986 (Lake Nyos). Seasonal disasters such as cyclones are confined to the Indian Ocean islands and coastal countries such as Mozambique. Snowstorms occur only in Lesotho.

Toxic wastes made headlines in mid-1988 when tons of toxic waste from outside of Africa were disposed of in African countries. This sparked off protests in and out of Africa by governments, international organizations, and environmental groups. Containers carrying toxic wastes are often corroded by the substances within, which then escape into the surrounding soil and work their way up through the food chain from the soil to vegetation and crops, or from the water system to reservoirs and household water, which humans ultimately consume. Exposure to radioactive materials is particularly harmful to human health and inflicts irreversible damage on the ecosystem, affecting agricultural production and related activities. So industrial waste that requires handling by sophisticated technology contributes to Africa’s environmental crisis.

Current prevention and preparedness efforts

Many African countries are intensifying their efforts to mitigate disasters. Countries such as Ethiopia and Senegal have established early warning systems that serve not only their own but neighboring countries. There are a number of integrated programs to combat disasters in Africa. Some have been undertaken by disaster-specific African organizations, others by nondisaster-specific development organizations. In addition, some United Nations organizations and specialized agencies have disaster-specific programs, including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of the UN Disaster Relief Co-ordinator (UNDRO), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the UN Statistical Office (UNSO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the World Bank. National and international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) - particularly the Red Cross and Red Crescent - have made significant efforts to combat disasters. Some of these organizations can make resources available on request by national governments when a disaster strikes. Significant efforts to control insect pests and diseases have been made by such intergovernment organizations as the Common Organization Against Desert Locust and Granivorous Birds (OCLALAV), the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA), and the International Red Locust Control Organization of Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO-CSE).

Disaster planning

Disaster preparedness - the readiness to predict, prevent, respond to, and cope with the effects of a crisis - should not be limited to short-term measures undertaken during a warning period before the disaster strikes. Those measures must be supported by legislation, contingency planning, national operational planning, emergency funding arrangements, the education and training of the general population, and the technical training of those responsible for emergency operations and the stockpiling of supplies. Each society is responsible for preparedness, but it also requires the commitment of the world community.

It is not possible to prescribe uniform national preparedness or contingency plans for all African countries because their resources, administrative structures, and infrastructure vary widely. It is not even appropriate to recommend the same guidelines for all disasters in one country because each disaster has its own peculiarities. Planning for disaster preparedness is a two-stage process. First, an outline plan should be prepared, identifying the types of hazards to be addressed and the procedure to be followed. Then comprehensive plans should be developed to deal with the management needs for specific disasters.

Disaster preparedness and response are usually multisectoral and interdisciplinary, requiring the involvement of a number of ministries, sectors, and areas at the same time. When guidelines for action do not exist or are inadequate, a disaster has a worse effect on the country and its people than it need have. In small countries, the guidelines for action can be executed satisfactorily at the national level, where the main business of government is managed. In larger countries, guidelines should be geared to regional, state, or provincial action because normal day-to-day government business is managed at those levels. Dealing with disasters should basically be an extension of normal government functions.

The central government’s role is to initiate the program of disaster preparedness. The local administration is then responsible for implementing it and maintaining its effectiveness. But the effectiveness of government and nongovernment disaster relief operations can be greatly enhanced by developing community responsibility, understanding, and skills.

Disaster preparedness is the sensible analysis of possible disaster scenarios with a view to determining how authority and responsibility for action should be delegated, what local human and material resources exist, and how these can be earmarked and deployed. This precautionary planning should be complemented by a program of public education and training, so that all members of the population understand what is being done, what they must do, and how to do it. Preparedness involves strengthening institutions and expertise and creating stockpiles of food and supplies.

Countries vulnerable to disaster need to establish a mechanism to focus relief operations, coordinating activities at different levels. It is important to establish a national disaster management unit headed by a minister or a senior officer and affiliated with the office of the president or prime minister on a permanent standby basis. This unit helps with preparedness, advance planning, coordination, and organization of relief programs. The unit’s specific functions depend on the country’s vulnerability to disasters and the availability of resources. Figure 1 suggests how such a unit would help formulate a plan of action to mitigate disasters. The same structure could be used for operations.

The coordinating committee should be composed of senior officers representing all ministries dealing with food and medical supplies, imports, employment, storage, meteorology, and anything else relevant to disaster relief. The committee could be assigned the task of watching over the supply situation, receiving relief aid, and identifying any logistical, administrative, financial, or supply constraints. The committee could also identify activities at the local level, prepare a local plan, and periodically review implementation of the relief program. Some countries may need to establish a subcommittee for disaster management and planning at the field level. This subcommittee would study village life thoroughly and recommend how best to draw on village resources and traditions in mitigating disasters.

Figure 1 Suggested structure for drafting a disaster mitigation plan

Preparing an action plan for disaster mitigation

The action plan should identify who declares that a disaster exists, who should release financial resources, and what its objectives and limitations are. It should be a practical document. The emergency plan could also be integrated into such development projects as the Primary Health Care (PHC) Program. There is no standard plan for disaster mitigation plan, but certain elements are essential. Generally, the plan must:

· Be written with the active cooperation and participation of those who will be required to execute it.

· Be simple, easy to read and understand, tested, revised regularly, updated every two to three years, and easily accessible to those who need it.

· Clearly define the situation for which it was designed and the magnitude of the threat.

· Show how the efforts of different organizations and institutions are to be coordinated.

· Use existing structures rather than create new ones.

· Identify available resources in each key area (manpower, equipment, and finance), so it is easier to figure out what else is needed.

· Specify local factors needed to respond to disaster.

· Spell out a command-and-control structure, including the procedure for collecting and receiving information and disseminating warnings.

The following elements are needed in a disaster plan of action:

· Introduction: state national policy, describe the general concept of disaster preparedness, and describe the potential for disaster. The purpose of the plan is to state national priorities. These should be identified early in the action plan. Who authorizes this plan?

· State how this plan relates to other plans.

· Describe the country (region, state, province) in terms of its climate, topography, industry, demography, government organizations.

· Provide a brief history or review of local natural events or disasters (by type), and indicate what the potential is for further natural events or disasters or for technological disasters (or other disasters generated by human action).

· Identify the main requirements for dealing with disaster in terms of people, equipment, material, funds, public institutions, legislation.

· Identify planning groups for different levels and sectors. Name emergency coordinators for key sectors such as health (medical), public works, police, fire brigade, power, reserves, transport, communications.

· Plan organizational structure:

- Allocate roles and tasks at all levels.

- Specify how to arrange for and manage international assistance.

- Spell out how to coordinate planning and organization.

- Formulate policies on who makes appeals (to whom, for what?), who determines needs, and to whom information should go.

- Identify who is responsible for seeing that the plan is viable.

- Identify who is in charge of legislation, financial measures, organization, community participation, declaring that there is a disaster, communications, survey and assessment of the situation, logistics, procurement of supplies, distribution of supplies, evacuation, training and public education, and the protection of data and cultural heritage.

· Spell out how the following will be done (by whom, when) in disaster-prone areas:

- Plan logistics.

- Use indicators to predict disaster.

- Preposition food, medicine, and other supplies.

- Establish an early warning system.

- Establish an international communication system.

- Manage logistics for mobilizing local people and reaching isolated people.

- Distribute food, medicine, and other supplies.

- Initiate reforestation.

· Spell out how these support measures are to be carried out:

- Training at different levels.

- Public awareness programs.

- Financial procedures.

- National budget reserve.

- Deployment of supplies.

· Identify preparedness measures (general, national, provincial, or regional). Plan training and public awareness programs.

· Plan communications.

· Plan operational control and coordination. Identify who is in charge of:

- Coordinating operational control.

- National emergency operations center.

- Provincial or regional emergency centers.

· Plan warning arrangements. Describe generally and spell out:

- From which agency warnings will originate.

- How warnings will be transmitted.

- How warnings will be disseminated to the general public.

- How to broadcast warnings in different languages.

- Who should be notified, and how, in different service areas such as the police, fire brigade, medical, reserves, public works, power, and transport.

· Describe how plan should be implemented. List stages of implementation.

- Describe counterdisaster operations.

- Establish a suitable operations center that can coordinate the emergency responses of many services.

- Put through legislation needed for emergency power.

- Identify ongoing technical cooperation programs that can facilitate development of national disaster programs and objectives.

- Spell out how and who to activate emergency operations centers at different levels.

- Spell out how to control and coordinate operations.

- Spell out what happens for the duration of the disaster operations.

· State what the policy is for recovery and who is responsible for the recovery program.

· Identify who is responsible for postdisaster review and indicate how they are to review the plan and organization in light of actual operations during an emergency.

The plan should contain (possibly in annexes):

A distribution list of essential relief items.
A list of definitions and abbreviations.
A list of resource people.
A functional diagram, showing organization and lines of responsibility and cooperation.
Duties and responsibilities of the national disaster management unit.
Detailed information on the warning system.
Precautionary measures to be adopted on receipt of warning.
Outline for public awareness program.
Outline for international assistance arrangements.
Outline for training.
Allocation of roles and tasks to resource organizations.
Clearances, if required.
Map references.

Strategy for regional and international cooperation

Natural disasters are often a regional problem, and often require regional solutions. So it is important to reinforce and strengthen regional disaster mitigation efforts in Africa. The following steps to be done jointly by international organizations and local governments would strengthen cooperative international and regional efforts to mitigate disasters in Africa:

· Organize a regional meeting on disasters in Africa to identify national, subregional, and regional project priorities and help implement them.

· Identify African regions susceptible to specific types of disaster and assess expected losses. This will facilitate the development of regional strategies for disaster response and planning.

· Make technical assistance available for subregional and regional studies on disaster mitigation. The threat of slow- and rapid-onset disasters is greater in Africa than on other continents and the implications are worse.

· Design and organize programs of counterdisaster education and training to develop national capabilities to plan for the disasters that strike Africa and to manage effectively when they do.

· Strengthen the ability of the Pan African Centre for Disaster Preparedness and Response (in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) to deal with all disasters in Africa and establish networks in different subregions to help it in that effort. Promote subregional and regional cooperation in an integrated approach to disaster reduction. Evaluate the performance and problems of such sub-regional bodies as CILSS and IGADD and suggest ways to improve cooperation among them.

· Study ways to streamline procedures for getting emergency aid to disaster-prone land-locked African countries.

· Help develop applications of existing knowledge, close critical gaps in knowledge, exchange and disseminate information, provide technical assistance, and facilitate the transfer of adaptable technology.

· Help individual countries plan and implement an effective national program for mitigating disasters that includes hazard prediction, risk assessment, disaster preparedness, and disaster management.

· Create expertise and assemble the resources needed to reduce the death toll from disasters. Help replace old approaches with an integrated approach to managing disasters.

· Supplement and reinforce existing structures to combat disasters.

· Develop scientific research on different types of vegetation suitable in drought conditions.

· Promote the participation of African scientists in international scientific programs on the environment.

· Support pilot integrated land-management operations and practices, test research results, and develop ways to disseminate the results to the people.

· Develop a multiple-service database and train national personnel to handle it.