Naturally functioning ecosystems (ecological infrastructure) can prevent or mitigate natural disasters like floods, fires, landslides including those disasters exacerbated by climate change.
Ecological infrastructure has a critical role to play in disaster risk reduction (DRR), and should be integrated into all levels of disaster management planning, especially at the local municipal level.
The Disaster Management Act is being revised and the Disaster Amendment Bill has recently completed a public comment stage. Conservation South Africa (CSA) and other stakeholders in the biodiversity and conservation sector have provided comments on the Bill. The comments aim to raise the level of attention towards pro-active steps that reduce risk from disasters before a disaster occurs as opposed to allocating all resources towards more costly retroactive, post-disaster rehabilitation. In addition, the comments ensure that DRR plans recognise the critical role of ecological infrastructure in building resilience against disasters, as well as highlighting the need for financial mechanisms for DRR at the local municipal level.
The comments include the need to strengthen the provisions of the Bill that focus on sensible investment in ecological infrastructure and ecosystem based approaches to reduce the risk of disasters. This would include rehabilitation of key ecosystems, like wetlands, veld/grazing lands and water catchment areas that are important for mitigating the impacts from disasters, including the adverse impacts of climate change. Also required would be funding support for DRR at all levels, flowing from national to local municipalities to support such activities.
According to the Minister in The Presidency Ohm Collins Chabane, the Disaster Management Amendment Bill “will re-affirm the function of district municipalities regarding the responsibility to establish capacity for the development and co-ordination of a disaster management plan”. Amongst other things, the Bill will re-invigorate the disaster planning and prevention objectives of the Disaster Management Act 2002.
At a municipal level, the mandate for disaster management has not been clear and only the mandate for post-disaster rehabilitation is funded through the water, environment and social development sectors of national government. Therefore, municipalities do not always plan for the full costs of a disaster and disaster prevention is often not a priority. Thus, the Amendment Bill should clarify the responsibility of municipalities in the proactive investment in disaster risk reduction.
CSA has found that, according to the Department of Cooperative Governance and Trade Affairs (COGTA), R254million was allocated to the agriculture, water and social development sectors for disaster risk reduction/prevention and mitigation between 2011 and 2014. Some of these funds have not been utilized for the specific purposes of DRR as intended. Research done by the Financial and Fiscal Commission shows that part of the reason for this is the lack of knowledge and understanding of DRR. This results in sector departments not integrating DRR into their daily operations, resulting in no demand for DRR in the department budgets.
The Amendment Bill should focus on good vulnerability assessments and mapping of key risks to develop comprehensive management plans for DRR that are then implemented, funded and include ecosystem based adaptation. Funds should be made available to all levels of government and especially for local municipalities.
It is necessary to emphasize the fact that a healthy environment can be a valuable asset in disaster risk reduction, and that the relevant departments should channel more funds towards the restoration of functioning ecosystems and towards the restoration and protection of ecological infrastructure.
Preventing or reducing the impact from disasters has huge benefits for all, especially if we conserve our ecosystems and their services in order to achieve this. Funding for these ecosystems based approaches that build ecological infrastructure is critical at all levels especially the local level.