14 March 2014

Swaziland: King's Airport Lacks Disaster Plan

opinion

Medical services in Swaziland could not cope if a plane crashed at the kingdom's new King Mswati III Airport, putting the lives of hundreds of passengers at risk.

This was first pointed out nearly four years ago, but the problem of the kingdom's inadequate medical services has not been addressed.

Safety at the airport is one of the many issues ignored by King Mswati who, as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, who is the driving force behind the airport's construction.

No needs analysis was done before building of the airport started in 2003 and no business plan exists for the operation of the airport. No commercial flights in or out of the airport are likely to take place in the foreseeable future as no local or international airline has signed up to use the airport, which has cost an estimated E3 billion (US$300 million) so far to build.

The airport, formally known as Sikhuphe, was officially opened by King Mswati on 7 March 2014.

Musa Hlophe, the coordinator of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO), first raised the question of safety in November 2010. Writing in his regular column in the Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in the kingdom, he asked what would happen if an aircraft with (say) 400 passengers on board crashed at the airport?

He wrote, 'Assuming that we expanded our country's ambulance fleet to 200 and each one was able to get to Sikhupe within one hour, how could our hospitals manage with hundreds of extra patients in one day? The closest hospital will be Good Shepherd at Siteki which is not exactly state of the art and the nearest major hospitals are in Manzini and Mbabane. They are already all on their knees, struggling to cope with our current crises of TB, HIV&AIDS.

'Do our hospitals have a plan to cope with maybe 400 foreign people all needing bed spaces urgently? Do we have enough doctors and nurses trained in accident and emergency and most importantly do we have the necessary medicines, equipment and blood for this level of disaster? In a country that cannot even supply its own citizens with the proper drugs to prevent a child dying from rabies because of the bite of one dog - I doubt it. I doubt they could cope with fifty people never mind four hundred.

'Sikhuphe's business model to attract major foreign passenger carriers is already flawed because of the competition from four other regional airports within half a day's drive - Kruger National in Mbombela (Nelspruit), Maputo in Mozambique, King Shaka in Durban and, of course, OR Tambo in Johannesburg. But what really stands out for me, as someone who has worked for businesses for a long time, is what little proper risk analysis has gone on here.

Can you imagine an airline that wanted to carry rich western investors and tourists that would risk the lives of hundreds of its passengers? Can you imagine them ignoring the lack of medical systems, equipment, personnel or facilities to cope with even a relatively minor crash that required treatment of only a quarter of their passengers and staff?'

'If we adapt our medical systems to meet this need, will we take resources away from our families who are living with and dying from HIV&AIDS? So I ask a question that does not seem to have been considered in public before.

How will the disaster plan for Sikhupe affect the provision of health care for the rest of us? Will the health budget be diverted from the families of our sick and dying to allow for the imagined needs of strangers who will only stay a few hours in our country? Has Minister Xaba and his team even considered it - have they thought it through? What do they say to the foreign investors?'

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