29 July 2012

Tanzania: Closing the Barn Door After the Goats Flee


"I need my mother, please someone find my mother, she is over there," screamed the seven year old Aisha Mohamed, pointing towards the ocean. The scene was the shores of the Indian Ocean, and the time was the wee hours of September 2011, and the seven year old girl was screaming for her mother, whose body still lies at the bottom of the ocean, among the wreck of a boat.

"It was dark, and people were screaming all around me in the water, I looked for my mother but I could not see her, but I believe that she will come for," she said, recounting the horrific scene, but she was wrong however, her mother never came for her.

Tanzania is increasingly becoming a country of too many unnecessary man-made accidents and deaths. In recent memory we have had Mv Spice Islander disaster, dozen gristly road accidents and even fire disasters like the one on Mwanjelwa market in Mbeya region.

And these disasters have formed the habit of erupting while the memories of the previous disaster are still fresh on people's minds. Barely one year ago in September last year, nearly 200 people lost their lives when MV Spice Islander, a passenger boat, capsized off the popular tourist archipelago of Zanzibar. But after the hullabaloo which followed this tragedy, with fingers pointed in all directions, nothing was done, and now Tanzanians are faced with yet another tragedy, which has most of the aspects of MV Spice Islander.

On Wednesday the 18th, MV Skagit capsized near Chumbe Islet in Zanzibar, 13.8 nautical miles from Zanzibar port, and so far almost 70 people have been confirmed dead and countless missing. The boat, according to sources, had 251 passengers and 9 crew members on board, and was heading to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam. MV Skagit capsized after being hit by strong winds accompanied by heavy waves, and it was also alleged that the boat was sailing at high speed and this might have contributed to its capsizing.

As we contemplate on what should or should never have been done in the boat disaster which left quite a big number of people dead, tragedy struck once again, and we are yet to bury our dead once again. Which brings to the fore the question which has been playing on the minds of most Tanzanians, the question of whether our country is well equipped and prepared to deal with disasters and calamities.

"Tanzania is vulnerable to repeated natural disasters, shifts in agricultural productivity due to climate change, declining environmental sustainability and food insecurity. These challenges require well-organized, multi-sector emergency early warning and preparation systems," says Emmanuel Kimani, an expert in disaster preparedness based in Nairobi Kenya. He says that technically speaking, the policies, strategies, plans and structures needed to support disaster management in Tanzania are in place.

However, careful analysis reveals widespread weaknesses in prevention and disaster mitigation strategies, preparedness, emergency responsive capacity and sustainable recovery options. In Tanzania, Emergency and Disaster response is centrally coordinated to ensure attention from the highest level of the executive branch. In keeping with international best practice, relevant ministries are required to coordinate their emergency and disaster response through the Emergency and Disaster Response directorate in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Vice- President's Office in Zanzibar.

"Unfortunately, key line ministries lack the capacity to prioritize emergency and disaster strategies in their own policies and planning; the effect is that key services are not readily available when disaster strikes. Rapid response is further delayed by the limited availability of immediately deployable, dedicated emergency and disaster response funds," says Kimani. Locally, government and communities lack awareness of emergency and disaster response.

During crises, communication needs such as early warning and early action bulletins are often unavailable. This is due to a lack of access to technology and skills within ministries, departments and agencies. Persistent and emerging disaster risks have highlighted the need to strengthen national structures in Tanzania to minimize these risks, prepare for potential disasters and support the building of sustainable capacities to manage a response in case a disaster strikes.

It is commendable to see that after the boat disaster, the Zanzibar minister for Infrastructure and Communication, Hamad Masoud hamad opted to resign from his post, but this does not, in any way, solve the problem. A major problem of disaster management is that international (mostly North American or European) teams are well prepared, but the victims, just like the ones in MV Skagit, are not.

Many people in threshold and developing countries suffer from systemic weaknesses. These circumstances mostly do not get any media attention. Compared to huge-scale disasters, their impacts are simply not as impressive.

Nevertheless, high levels of vulnerability serve as the breeding ground for severe impacts of huge-scale disasters. In Tanzania, emergency responses after the impact of a disaster and development cooperation are subject to countless handicaps. Some of them appear in the chaotic situation after the event, others within the time of reconstruction.

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