SA’s disaster relief system: making a bad situation worse

The release of disaster relief funds is a contentious issue in South Africa, writes Dr Christo Coetzee, researcher and lecturer at the North-West University’s African Centre for Disaster Management. According to him, the country needs a proactive approach to disaster relief to ensure a sustainable, profitable agricultural industry, and to safeguard food security.

SA’s disaster relief system: making a bad situation worse
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Current estimates of the socio-economic benefits of agriculture indicate that just over one billion people worldwide are employed in the sector. Agriculture remains a significant contributor to the GDP of individual countries, especially those in developing regions.

In Africa, for example, agriculture’s contribution accounts for 15% to 30% of all GDP income.

In South Africa, primary agriculture’s contribution to the overall GDP is considerably smaller – about 1,9% (2013). Expressed in monetary terms, however, this is a very large figure: R62,8 billion.

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In addition, agriculture is a crucial engine for growth for the rest of the economy. It creates a vast number of job opportunities, delivers basic products for the secondary production sectors, and earns foreign exchange for the country.

Finally, of course, the sector serves as the primary contributor to the food security of South Africa and the wider SADC region.

READ Investigate drought relief fund allocation: Agri SA

In recent years, however, agriculture has come under increasing pressure from climate change, population increase and disasters such as droughts, floods and veld fires.

Moreover, as I shall show, the way in which government has responded to natural disasters has made the situation worse.

A highly vulnerable sector
No part of society is immune to the impact of natural disasters. However, agriculture’s reliance on the weather, climate and available water makes it more vulnerable than most sectors.

In the recent past, disasters in the sector have caused a total failure in agricultural systems, resulting in production losses, job losses and weakening economies due to increased input costs and higher food prices.

According to the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC), the 2007 floods in the Eastern Cape and the 2010 floods in the Northern Cape resulted in losses in infrastructure, equipment and production estimated at R190,7 million and R3,6 billion respectively.

The 2007/2008 drought caused losses in excess of R285 million, while the 2015/2016 drought, considered to be the worst in more than a century, saw five provinces declared ‘disaster areas’.

These droughts severely harmed agricultural production, resulted in poor grazing conditions, crop production far below average, and high livestock mortalities.

Historically, veld fires have also been one of the greatest hazards facing South African farmers. The natural low humidity, wind speed and high fuel load across most of the country’s productive areas create ideal conditions for veld fires.

The last few years have seen an increase in fires, with a devastating impact on the long-term sustainability and profitability of both the commercial and emerging sectors. The impact of veld fires has been particularly severe on the latter, with many small-scale farmers losing their entire livelihoods to the fires.

South Africa’s agricultural sector is also affected by erratic climatic conditions (global warming), low-potential soils, a dry and unstable climate, as well as livestock diseases and pests.

Man-made problems
From all this, it is abundantly clear that the country’s agricultural sector faces substantial disaster risk. But this is not the full story. All too often, the effects of natural disasters are exacerbated by shortcomings in the country’s disaster relief mechanisms.

The release and distribution of disaster relief funds is a particular problem in South Africa.

The country suffers from numerous difficulties pertaining to the provision and rapid distribution of adequate relief funds. To begin with, it takes anywhere from nine months to two years for drought aid to reach the drought-stricken farmers it was intended for.

The declaration of a state of disaster by local or provincial governments is the first step to get the ball rolling for the provision of relief to the affected farming communities. However, the process of declaration is often criticised as being too complex and involving too many levels of government bureaucracy.

Once a local government disaster centre, the affected local municipality and affected farmers have signed off on an initial disaster impact assessment for a local state of disaster to be declared, a second level of disaster classification is required before an official declaration can be made.

This second level, conducted by the NDMC, serves as an evaluation of the initial assessment. Only after this has been completed, can an application be made to Treasury to release funds.

Lack of political will
Another factor that plays a role in the declaration of a state of disaster is political will. The decision to declare a local or provincial state of disaster effectively lies with the political office bearers of the affected municipality or province.

Politicians are often cautious about declaring a state of disaster lest it should create an impression that the province or municipality is poorly managed.

A recent study on the implementation of a drought relief scheme in the Northern Cape clearly shows the impact that party politics have on the release of relief funds.

The research indicated that political leaders were often not available to attend to the initial impact reports presented to them by local disaster management centres.

Additionally, because the drought took place during an election cycle, the officials took even longer than anticipated to declare a state of disaster.

The study went on to show that once the aid had been made available by national government, the speed and manner of its distribution were also affected by politics.

There were allegations that relief distribution contracts were given to politically connected individuals and that aid was distributed according to political affiliations.

Poor communication
Yet another problem in South Africa’s disaster relief system is a lack of proper communication between role players during the initial assessment process.

Often, they do not fully understand their responsibilities in the declaration process. For example, they are not always clear about what type of information farmers need to convey to disaster management centres and representatives from the department of agriculture in order to expedite the assessment.

This often means that incorrect information is provided, which in turn slows everything down.

The proactive approach
Although the challenges facing the provision of relief aid are daunting, there are ways in which the agricultural community can play a role in improving the status quo.

The most important action is to move towards a proactive approach to disaster relief. This includes the creation of relief assessment criteria to be used in case of a disaster, and the dissemination of these criteria via farmer’s association or cooperatives.

Understanding what type of information is needed for the declaration process and how the process works will go a long way towards expediting the application process for relief aid.

It is also imperative for all parties involved in disaster management and the provision of disaster relief to build stronger relationships in order to create greater understanding of the extent of the risk faced by farming communities and the need for rapid disaster declaration.

For more information, email Dr Christo Coetzee at [email protected]

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.