Southern Africa: Ramping Up Regional Disaster Preparedness


Every year the massive Zambezi River breaks its banks, flooding entire villages in at least one of the eight Southern African countries it cuts through. Droughts and cyclones are an annual occurrence in the region too, causing thousands to lose their homes, crops and livestock.

With the same communities hit over and over again, multiple hazards strip away resilience, sending vulnerable people deeper into poverty. To break the cycle, Member States of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) turned to OCHA to develop regional-level capacity to respond to cyclical disasters and their trans-border impacts.

“When rains fall in Angola they can cause floods in Mozambique two months down the line. That’s all the way across the region,” explains Kennedy Masamvu, SADC’s Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor.

He says Member States first became serious about a regional approach after widespread flooding affected eight counties in the region in 2007/2008. "In terms of mobilizing resources and mounting a response, it was necessary to have a regional coordinating body.”

Entirely reliant on member contributions, SADC’s secretariat needed financial and technical assistance and “OCHA was a natural partner,” Masamvu notes. “It was already working closely with Member States at a national level, working on emergency preparedness and developing national contingency plans.”

A Dedicated Unit

In setting up the new SADC Disaster Risk Reduction Unit (DRRU) OCHA helped get endorsement from Member States and supported the development of policy and strategic frameworks for emergency-related regional collaboration. OCHA also encouraged support from regional humanitarian partners such as the Red Cross, other UN agencies and major NGO’s.

“Member States themselves suggested OCHA help us with our Information Management (IM) systems,” Masamvu explained, because a number of national disaster management authorities in the region were already using working systems with agreed indicators and assessment tools created with OCHA support. “Instead of reinventing the wheel, OCHA brought expertise, knowledge and best practices in IM."

Early warning and information sharing amoung countries that share the Zambezi River Basin have seen the most significant improvement in recent years. “In collaboration with national agencies we monitor river levels and dam levels. National hydro services have gauging stations at various points but it’s the coordination of bringing that information together and sharing it that is important now,” Masamvu says.

In early 2011, unusually heavy rainfall in Angola’s central plateau caused flooding in the south of the country. Days later, the same rains rushed towards the Cuvelai Basin, one of the most densely populated and poorest regions in neighbouring Namibia. SADC’s DRRU helped relay water level information from Angola’s hydro-meteorological services to Disaster Management agencies in Namibia to ensure they were prepared and ready to respond.

“It is very important to link the authorities on both sides of the border. Sometimes people have the information but they keep it to themselves. They don’t realize this might have an impact further downstream,” Masamvu notes.

Although funding for the DRRU remains a challenge, the unit is ambitious. Masamvu hopes for the creation of a basic regional stockpile of relief items and emergency equipment and a roster of disaster management experts from the Southern African countries that are able to rapidly deploy should disaster strike. He also sees a role for SADC in contributing to regional appeals: "When and emergency affects more than one country, they should appeal as group through SADC instead of having different competing appeals. If this is backed by improved  needs analysis, donors are helped in setting priorities."

“For now we are looking at what other regions have done,” Masamvu says. “OCHA is helping us learn from response strategies and best practices form ECOWAS [Economic Community Of West African States] and ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations].” 




The Zambezi River, Africa’s fourth largest, rises in Zambia and flows through Angola, along the borders of Namibia and Botswana, and into Zambia again, then along the Zimbabwean border and through Mozambique, where it spills into the Indian Ocean. © OCHA/AVMU

Every year, flooding of the Zambezi disrupts the lives of thousands in Southern Africa. © David Gough/IRIN