The elusive art of disaster management

BY GAD WESONGA

The United Nations defines disaster as a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society. It involves widespread adverse human, material, economic or environmental impacts, which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.

Disasters come in different forms. These include natural occurrences such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Others are environmentally related such as technological or industrial accidents involving the production, use or transportation of hazardous material that occur where these materials are produced, used or transported.

There are also disasters related to irresponsible human activities such as bush fires and complex emergencies like a break-down of authority that leads to social mayhem like looting and attacks on strategic installations. These include conflict situations like what occurred in the Kenyan post election violence of 2017/18. 

Others occur as a result of pandemics involving a sudden onset of contagious disease such as Ebola and now the dreaded COVID-19 that has gripped and brought the world to a standstill.

The combination of hazards, vulnerability and inability to reduce the potential negative consequences of risk results in disaster.

Apparently, disasters are prone to happen and when they do, they come with massive negative effects such as disruption of health services, economic ruins and social upheavals. Disasters have immediate impacts on human life and secondary impacts causing further deaths, agony and suffering.

Kenya’s peaceful morning was rudely interrupted on March 13 when news of the first reported case of Corona virus in the country was made. The fright-stricken public was calmed by the Heath minister that the situation is under control and advised on certain immediate precautionary measures, which revolve around basic personal hygiene and discipline.

Disasters are not new in Kenya though. As the dreadful news of the arrival of COVID-19 sank in, huge swarms of locusts continued to ravage many parts of the country with devastating effects. This follows closely to the prolonged period of drought that Kenya experienced toward the end of 2019 which lead to losses of lives, starvation, and wealth depletion especially in pastoralist communities before whatever little that was left got swept away by deadly floods that followed in many parts of the country. 

On the evening of Monday February 3, 2020, in western Kenya, disaster occurred when learners, happy that they were done with the learning activities of the day and eager to rush home for the waiting embrace of their loved ones were instead met with painful and horrifying experience at Kakamega Primary school when tragedy stuck in a stampede that claimed 15 tender lives, left many injured and scores others traumatized, perhaps for a lifetime.

In 1998, 26 girls perished at Bombolulu Girls Secondary School, now Mazeras Memorial Secondary School in Kwale County when a dormitory with about 130 students went up in flames. In the present day Machakos County, a dormitory fire on the night of March 24, 2001 at Kyanguli Secondary School claimed 67 students while in 2009, fire tragedy occurred at Nakumatt Downtown in Nairobi killing more than 29 people among them employees of the supermarket and shoppers. 

January 31, 2009, Molo, an oil spill resulted in the deaths of at least 113 people and left about 200 critically injured. The incident occurred when an overturned truck burst into flames as onlookers attempted to obtain remnants of the spilled fuel. 

While in Nairobi, August 12, 2011 a firetragedy in the Sinai slum left around 95 people dead and massive property destruction. 

These are some of the perennial disasters that plague Kenya. Others are security related such as several terrorist attacks that the country has experienced in the recent past and politically instigated conflicts like what was experienced in the post election mayhem of 2017/18.

Disaster management

Evidently, disasters hover over human life and activities and cannot be wished away. The only issue then becomes their management.

According to the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, disaster management is the organization and management of resources and responsibilities for dealing with all humanitarian aspects of emergencies that arise as a result of disaster events. These include preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response and recovery in order to lessen the adverse effects of disasters. 

Preparedness

Mr Amutabi Gusero, a lead auditor OSHAS 18000,Lead auditor FSMS 2000,Tap-root lead Accident Investigator and NEMA Associate Expert, says that disaster preparedness involves mapping out the risk, risk rating impact, determination of response, checking on existing measures and evaluation based on previous performance. He adds that it involves training and drills for various response teams with clear forms of communication and guidelines established.

These activities are designed to minimize adverse effects of disasters for example by removing people and property from a threatened location and by facilitating timely and effective rescue, relief and rehabilitation. In the current global threat of corona epidemic, for example, many countries have taken this step by various approaches such as setting up medical infrastructure, training of the medical personnel, widespread media awareness and continued monitoring of activities and events so as to respond appropriately should disaster strike. Such preparedness is for example what lead to the isolation and track down of those who may have mingled with the confirmed corona virus patients to minimize further infection and spread.

Poorly planned disaster preparedness can have negative impact not only on the disaster victims but also on resources. This therefore underpins the need for joint approach in addressing disaster situations where local, regional, national and international organizations are all involved in mounting a humanitarian response to disasters. Each will have a prepared disaster management plan.

This is where the Kenyan national government has been in the forefront in terms of preparation activities associated with the combat of the  corona virus threat while various county government have responded too by development of a raft of measures in this regard. Reports indicate that humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross are already in tandem with the rest of the government agencies in preparations.

Prevention

These are proactive activities designed to provide permanent protection from disasters. Not all disasters, particularly natural disasters, can be prevented, but the risk of loss of life and injury can be mitigated with good evacuation plans, environmental planning and design standards.

This may require certain legislative requirements and frameworks that offer guiding principles, priorities for action, and practical means for achieving disaster resilience.

These activities are aimed at reducing vulnerabilities that increase susceptibility. It further helps to lessen the impacts of natural and man-made conditions that have the potential to adversely impact the lives and livelihoods of communities. It also helps to develop and enhance the capacity of individuals, communities and institutions to reduce risk and build up resilience.

In a strong bid to prevent the infection and spread of the covid-19, many  countries have restricted travelling to high risk areas, some countries have total lockdown and closed borders, social interaction is now limited and public activities like sporting suspended.

Schools have been closed, operations of government offices significantly reduced, handshakes discouraged and regular washing of hands has become the rallying call.

Response

It is a reactive activity after disaster has hit. Ideally, it is a coordinated multi-agency response to reduce the impact of a disaster and its long-term results.

When the first case of corona virus was announced in Kenya on the March 13, 2020, there was evident response from the medical fraternity, the security agencies, and the media and many more stakeholders in response to the devastating news. While the confirmed sick were immediately quarantined, the search for those who were in contact with them became the arduous task. In other disaster situations, response activities include rescue, relocation, providing food and water, repairing vital services such as telecommunications and transport, providing temporary shelter and emergency health care.

Recovery 

Once emergency needs have been met and the initial crisis is over, the people affected and the communities that support them are still vulnerable. Recovery activities include rebuilding infrastructure, health care and rehabilitation. These should blend with development activities, such as building human resources for health and developing policies and practices to avoid similar situations in future. In fire disasters in schools for example, resumption of learning is critical recovery phase in disaster management.

Management challenges

According to Mr. Amutabi Gusero there is no shortage of policies on disaster management in Kenya. He says that most of the documentation is actually impeccable but the problem lies in implementation. He cites issues like manpower constrains, enabling infrusture and supervision as some of those challenges he has encountered in his performance as an auditor

As a board member of Esther Neema Foundation, he say that during his tour of the various schools, documentation on matters related to disaster and disaster management is in place, quite coherent and elaborate but with no evidence of implementation. The Esther Neema Foundation aims at sensitizing staff and students in learning institutions on fire safety and awareness. It was officially launched on September 2, 2019 in memory of Esther Neema who lost her life in the Moi Girls School Nairobi fire tragedy in September 2, 2017.

It is from this background that Mr Amutabi is concerned that more efforts now need to be channeled towards implementation of the nice blue prints on the shelves into a reality to properly perfect the very important art of disaster management.   

Sign Up