5 November 2012

Rwanda: Disaster Management Is Everyone's Business


When nature unleashes its power, often all we puny humans can do is run for cover. That has become once again painfully clear in our own country over the past few months, when torrential rains pounded the hills and valleys, killing scores of people and destroying hundreds of buildings. And there was of course superstorm Sandy last week, which swept down on Haiti and the American East Coast, leaving a path of death and destruction in its wake.

Obviously, long-term precautions and short-term measures can help a lot in limiting the human and material damage. That is in the first place the responsibility of the government. Only they have the capacity to carry out scientific studies to assess which regions of the country are prone to certain types of natural disasters, and only they have the authority to order and organize the temporary evacuation of certain areas in case of expected calamities, among others.

Yet government decisions will have little effect if citizens do not cooperate. In the case of Sandy, for example, there were reports of numerous people who did not heed the call of the authorities to evacuate their area, and some of them might even have paid for it with their lives.

But when it comes to long-term preparation, too, all of us have a responsibility. Having a house at the beachfront is of course everyone's dream, but you then have to accept that in case of a heavy storm coming in from the sea, you will be the first to be hit. As for Rwanda, many of the victims of the flooding fell in chaotically built settlements on steep hillsides, and in many cases they had been warned by authorities of the risk that involved. When local leaders want to resettle people living in such places, they often meet with stiff resistance.

In one tragic case in Gikondo last week, an entire family was killed when a separation wall fell on their house; yet it was reported that the neighbor who had constructed the wall, had been warned that he shouldn't build it on that spot. He ignored the advice and went ahead, and now four lives have been lost.

Therefore, when it comes to disaster prevention and management, all citizens should take their responsibility, and not just wait for the government to do something. There will still be disasters, and there will still be casualties and material damage, but at least we will be able to say that we have done everything possible to reduce them to the minimum.

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