Professor Dewald van Niekerk, Director of the African Centre for Disaster Studies at North-West University’s Potchefstroom Campus, maintains that the task of disaster management is to minimise disaster risks and implement management systems to deal with their impact. A reactive focus that is shifted to disaster risk management and reduction is therefore required.
In any society, a portion of risk is created by people. This can be seen in the manner in which people settle and develop, in urban planning, in agricultural and land-use management, and in natural-resource management. Unmonitored use of these human interventions results in the increased vulnerability of resources, with the risk portion of such vulnerability being primarily human in nature.
However, if the human component of risk is managed, the potential results of this vulnerability are lessened. Disasters happen when something exceeds the ability of those affected to cope with or manage it, thereby impacting systems that humans are heavily dependent on, but in respect of which human development at the same ticreates risks.
Professor Van Niekerk highlights urbanisation as being the main issue in this regard, with many people from rural and periurban communities moving to urban city centres in search of better opportunities. This increases the burden on existing infrastructure, especially
where local municipalities are poorly equipped. Government is ill prepared for this, as well as for hazards such as floods that come about as a result of climate change. All of these situations can drastically tip the scales in respect of human settlement. Urban risk management, therefore, is complex.
There is a drive towards making cities resilient, and towards smarter and ‘greener’ urban planning. Dualistic models of development, however, neglect already developed areas and focus on new development. This is a problem in many municipalities, which is further aggravated by poorly built infrastructure caused by tender corruption and by the poor maintenance of existing infrastructure. This obviously further increases and worsens the risk factors involved in human settlements.
With the increase in disasters globally, risk management requires a multidisciplinary approach. Multiple developments flowing from small steps can decrease risks both in number and degree. Such a small step would be that of educating the populace.
In Professor Van Niekerk’s view, local development and risk management are primarily the responsibility of government. These are actioned through the process of integrated development planning, which is the mechanism incorporating disaster risk management.
Although municipalities’ integrated development plans integrate risk management, they do not address the actual risks because they remain disaster response focussed. Municipalities are unaware of the risks and consequently fail to act accordingly. What is required is that, prior to development, risk profiles must be available to inform developers of potential hazards. Development and disaster issues should therefore be packaged. A simple example such as that of simultaneous veld fires indicates how ill prepared a municipality can be in addressing risk issues.
The contribution that Professor Van Niekerk makes through the African Centre for Disaster Studies is primarily as researcher and consultant to nongovernmental organisations, international organisations like the United Nations, and government institutions. The private sector, though, is not closely involved in disaster and risk management, as it believes that it does not need to incorporate these into its plans owing to the lack of benefits. Its form of risk management is primarily risk-transfer mechanisms such as insurance. However, a holistic view of development and risk management would incorporate a broader take on disaster and risk management and disaster reduction. For instance, mining causes environmental degradation, so the mines need to address this issue.
The Centre believes that organisations first need to look at possible disasters and risks, then establish contingency plans and simulations to tackle these. Finally, they need to adapt their plans to change and development.
The primary action is developing risk plans, and it is important not to rely on risk-transfer mechanisms. Organisations need to look at the impact they have on the environment and then address this accordingly. Even in corporate social investment initiatives, communal and environmental impact should be viewed holistically.
Internationally, there is a shift towards engaging communal development in the reduction of risks and in risk management. Climate change and disaster risk are closely correlated and need to be integrated in risk management. Furthermore, resources need to be protected as a means of eliminating environmental hazards.
For the average person in society, risk management is a form of insurance that protects the individual through adequate development. With South Africa not having a heightened risk profile, development is the means by which risk arises – and this needs to be adequately addressed. This is particularly the case in urban areas that are less self-sufficient and sustainable in comparison with rural areas and where, in the event of environmental catastrophes, there would be a failure to function. Greener living is a form of living in which resilience can be created so that the individual can eliminate or reduce risk by simple means such as harvesting rainwater and by using solar power.
To this end, Professor van Niekerk and the African Centre for Disaster Studies seek to advocate change in the manner in which business, organisations and society function, thereby optimally reducing environmental hazards and risks.