Sifiso Skenjana: Something in the weather? The rapidly rising cost of natural disasters

Climate change denialists seem have crawled back into their cocoons as its effects become more evident daily. Cyclone Idai recently hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe and left a trail of infrastructure damage and tragic loss of lives.

Most recently we saw torrent storms hitting several areas in Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape. The death toll in KZN is reported at 85, with rescue teams still in operation to try to bring all to safety.

According to Aon, insurers no longer considered South Africa as a "low catastrophe risk" economy, with more than R5bn paid for losses incurred from natural disasters in 2017, the highest ever recorded.

The Aon 2018 Weather, Climate and Catastrophe Insight report found that globally there was an economic loss of $215bn due to weather disasters, compared to $438 in 2017 – making that a cumulative loss of $653 in the two years 2017 and 2018.

Tropical cyclones have been the largest contributors to the weather-related economic losses, accounting for 33% of the losses incurred in 2018, followed by floods and severe weather, each accounting for roughly 17% of the economic losses for the year.

South Africa remains vulnerable to particularly the same weather disasters and, of course, drought as well.

Risk profiling, planning and budgeting

It is not news that natural disasters have both short-term economic impact and long-term implications for economic growth, development and poverty reduction.

This means that as the impacts of climate change intensify, adequate mechanisms must be in place both for prevention and responding to disasters.

Many who watched the news coverage of the damage caused by the severe storms in KZN would have seen houses collapsing under poor structures, poor drainage systems causing strain on roads and passageways, and dominoes in action as informal dwelling structures failed to withstand the force of the storms.

It holds true, therefore, that appropriate risk profiling frameworks must be put in place and stress tested for efficacy. We need to have a standardised and dynamic view of municipal risk and vulnerability to disasters.

Understanding the natural disaster vulnerability of each municipality will ensure that the government can better plan financially for infrastructure development as well as budget provisioning for emergency response and relief funds for the municipalities that are more prone to being impacted by severe storms.

Of the R544m budget apportioned by the department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) in 2018, R424m was allocated for disaster relief efforts, R51m for disaster risk reduction and capacity building, and R23m for Information management systems and technology infrastructure for disaster management.

KZN, for example, has for a number of years fallen victim to severe storms that left social and private infrastructure damaged and resulted in the tragic loss of life.

There are several factors that inform the extent of an area’s vulnerability to disaster including location, settlements in steep slopes, settlements in flood plains, proximity to mine dumps, landfill and industrial areas, among others.

The Disaster Management Act of 2002 provides for "the prevention [of] or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating the severity of disasters, emergency preparedness, rapid and effective response to disasters and post-disaster recovery".

Should have, would have, could have

Executive leadership at national and provincial level should in a matter of minutes should have access to a comprehensive and integrated report and dashboard that details the funding, infrastructure and socio-economic risks and vulnerabilities faced by each municipality and region, and the corresponding impact analysis should disaster strike.

Such a tool would need to be dynamic and incorporate data from the weather service to update risk and vulnerabilities ratings, it should pull data from provincial and national treasury for both infrastructure and relief funding for budgeting purposes.

Most importantly, such a tool would enable for the effective prioritisation resources to ensure minimum impact of natural disasters on the lives of community inhabitants as well as the minimum impact of the economic activity in the country.

Reactive management of natural disasters slows down development, increases poverty, reduces economic activity, strains the fiscus and results in tragic loss of life. It now time for a proactive,  insights- and research-driven approach.