Cape Town — One of the worst informal settlement fires in the history of Cape Town, South Africa, took place on New Year's Day in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, laying bare the complexities undermining efforts to end these frequent disasters.
As more people migrate to the country's towns and cities, new informal settlements regularly spring up unannounced. The high density of these urban areas, and the flammability of the materials used to build in them, make spontaneous and rapidly spreading conflagrations a constant threat.
At least five people died and over 4,000 more were made homeless in Khayelitsha in the early hours of 1 January when a wall of fire, aided by strong winds, tore through an informal settlement called BM Section. Over a thousand shacks were burned to the ground.
Bongolweth Mpakama, 15, told IRIN he had never seen anything like the ferocity of the blaze that destroyed his family home within minutes. "We didn't think the fire would come to us, but when it approached, we started to take our possessions out of the shack and put them in a place where they were safe.
"But the fire quickly spread behind us and destroyed the place where we put our things," he said during an interview at Khayelitsha's Oliver Tambo Hall, where up to 2,000 victims of the disaster were given emergency shelter.
According to statistics from the City of Cape Town, the disaster brought the number of people made homeless by shack fires between 1 December 2012 and 8 January of this year to nearly 5,200.
The South African government has struggled to keep up with the demand for low-income housing and in cities like Cape Town, many people live in informal settlements for years while they wait for government housing.
For newly arrived migrants and the unemployed, shacks are also the only affordable accommodation in urban areas. According to census data, 9 percent of all South African households now live in informal settlements where access to electricity, water and sanitation is poor or non-existent.
Dispute over services
The BM Section fire has highlighted the need for a more holistic approach to the prevention of shack fires that includes better planning of informal settlements and enforcement of legislation that prohibits so-called land invasions, particularly in high fire-risk areas.
Researcher Warren Smit, from the University of Cape Town's African Centre for Cities programme, says the upgrading of all informal settlements is key to reducing the threat of shack fires, but that those trying to tackle the issue face a web of problems linked to institutional capacity, financial constraints and access to land.
"What makes progress even more difficult is the fact the role players have different perceptions of what the key issues are, and this creates a sense of mistrust between them," said Smit.
Jared Sacks of community development organization Children of South Africa, which works in Khayelitsha, says that the lower levels of service delivery in poor communities are partly to blame for the continued devastation caused by shack fires. "If a fire takes place in a wealthy area it is tended to immediately, but when it happens in a poor area the emergency services are much slower.
"Khayelitsha residents claim that it took up to two hours for the first fire truck to arrive on scene at BM Section... despite the fact that the local fire station is only one kilometre down the road. A much smaller fire in Camps Bay [a wealthy suburb] on New Year's Eve was responded to in a matter of minutes," he told IRIN.
However, Cape Town officials insisted that fire trucks were on the scene at BM Section within half an hour of the fire being reported but that the informal settlement's high density and random planning prevented them from reaching the worst of the blaze.
JP Smith, a member of Cape Town's Safety and Security Committee, pointed out that since his party, the Democratic Alliance, secured political power in Cape Town in 2006, large-scale investment had greatly improved the provision of emergency services in the city.
"We have more than doubled the number of firemen from 450 to 980 since 2006, and our fire mortality rate is down from 7.9 per 100,000 in 2006 to 4.3 per 100,000 today. We are doing much better, and the bulk of the gains are in informal settlements," he told IRIN.
Statistics supplied by Cape Town's Disaster Risk Management department show the annual death toll from shack fires fell from 131 in 2011 to 80 in 2012.
Smith said a city task team was now implementing a more preventative approach to shack fires, aimed at making informal settlement communities more resilient.
The approach includes fire safety education, training a large number of community reservists in fire fighting, distributing fire extinguishers to households in high-risk areas, and exploring the use of fire retardant paint and other products.
An approach to regulating informal settlements called "re-blocking" will also be used in BM section. Plots for re-building will be assigned in rows with three metres between them to facilitate the delivery of essential services and access for emergency vehicles.
However, this solution will reduce the number of people who can be accommodated in the settlement by at least 20 percent, and residents of BM Section displaced by the fire fear they will be moved to one of the temporary relocation areas on the outskirts of the city, far from public transport and work opportunities.
The approach has also had a limited impact when used in the past, according to Wilfred Solomons, deputy head of Cape Town's Disaster Management Centre.
Solomons noted that following a devastating fire in Joe Slovo informal settlement in Langa, another Cape Town township, in 2005, city authorities carefully managed the rebuilding of shacks by residents to ensure adequate gaps between them.
"This worked well for six months, after which residents gradually started expanding their structures until devastating fires started again," he said, adding that attempts to police the situation were met with considerable resistance.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]