Sifiso Skenjana | Poor environmental planning a key risk for long-term growth

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Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)
Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)

A real opportunity towards a prosperous and sustainable SA economy has got be anchored by a proactive policy stance towards real capacity building, writes Sifiso Skenjana.


Cyclone Eloise has again brought attention to the risk exposure of many South Africans to adverse weather events, specifically floods and cyclones to residential, social, public and economic infrastructure.

Flooding is estimated to account for close to 40% of all natural disasters and accounts for half of the natural disaster associated deaths. More than the immediate damage that these weather events cause, there is a longer term impact on the human capital development metrics as well as enterprise investment and sustainability. A proactive disaster risk management and capacity building programme is critical if we are to address the widening inequality, multidimensional poverty incidence as well as the broader economic planning agenda for the country. 

The South African story is that of low levels of resilience of health, economic, social and infrastructural systems and a real opportunity towards a prosperous and sustainable economy that has got be anchored by a proactive policy stance towards real capacity building.

Kossin et al in their paper Global Increase in Major Tropical Cyclone Exceedance Probability over the past four decades analysed satellite records from 1979 to 2017 and found a clear rise in destructive cyclones over the period, with the probability of a cyclone reaching wind speeds greater than 185km/h having risen by about 15% over the 39 year period.

Similarly, Greenham and Others in their 2013 paper Mapping Economic Resilience found that the seven key characteristics of a resilient economy were: 1) responsible business, 2) positive local money and resource flows 3) asset base and enabling environment 4) responsive public sector 5) active citizenry 6) interdependence and 7) environmental sustainability.

Characteristics four and seven remain the most critical in how we think about weather events, proactive policy design and building societal resilience and sustainability. The costs associated with these severe weather events are often concentrated around higher levels of mortality, sector and household economic loss, social and economic infrastructure repair costs, risks to improved social outcomes like sanitation, nutrition, water access, electricity etc.

The Human Capital Impact

The intuitive impact of disaster risk exposure is its impact on households and their asset accumulation process. Disasters like floods and cyclones often threaten the earnings capacity of households through the destruction of their existing property as well as their means of capital like tools, equipment etc. 

While this is evidently a more immediately observable impact, the other more devastating impacts is the medium term impact on health outcomes, educational outcomes and food security.

Findings from the 1996 review of Infectious Disease Emergencies in Disasters and additional findings from a Centre for Disease Control (CDC) report health Assessment of the Population Affected by Flood Conditions, reveal that these flood conditions in developing economies resulted in higher rates of diarrhea and respiratory infections amongst many others as well as higher levels of malnutrition due to inadequate food availability. Given the intensity of these floods in the KZN province, it is also unsurprising that that is the same province where we have seen cholera outbreaks repeatedly.

In addition, there is literature that also points to the increase in the needs for personal care services in areas affected by adverse weather events. These services are often done by young women and girls which - and by extension this has second round implications on job seeking and job availability and on educational outcomes for girls, meaning that these adverse weather events also worsen an already problematic reality pertaining to low levels of gender equity in both social and economic contexts.

Broadly, this suggests that these adverse weather events not only affect the pipeline of skills being developed through the education system, they are also likely to increase incidence of absenteeism and presenteeism as well as other human capital development metrics.

The policy position that is supported by the provisions in the National Disaster Management Act have got to focus on a proactive approach towards building societal resilience in disaster prone areas else the development project will continue to be hindered by these adverse weather events.

The Industry and Sector Impact

At a sector level, we know that these events generally have implications for agriculture, logistics, roads, supply chain disruptions as well disruptions to port and trade activity.

Fitchet et al in the 2016 paper Economic Costs of the 2012 Floods on Tourism in the Mopani District Municipality found that one flood had caused direct damage, conservatively estimated at R60 million for 24  surveyed lodges and conservation establishments.

Similalrly, Khandlhela & May in their paper Poverty, vulnerability and the impact of flooding in the Limpopo Province, South Africa found that floods in two communities had resulted in 47% of households losing a dwelling and assets within that dwelling; 37% of households were affected by injury and illnesses; 21% suffered the loss of a regular job; 11% saw a cut-off or decrease in income and remittances; while 17% suffered a loss of crops and livestock.

They found that the most common effects of the flood were the loss of shelter, followed by injury and illness, and ultimately changes in household income.

Simply, we cannot continue taking a reactive stance in how we deal with adverse weather events and the way the impact households and the broader economy.

Simpler, is the fact our economy will not grow without the adequate capacity building interventions to ensure resilient households and resilient industries and sectors. Never has the adage "prevention is better than cure" been more relevant than it is in how we think about future policy design in pursuit of long-term sustainable growth.

Everything depends on it.

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