Preparing communities for disasters & emergencies

Preparing rural Khomas communities for disasters and emergencies

From 5 to 9 November 2012, staff and volunteers from the Namibia Red Cross Society teamed up with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) and the Khomas Regional Council to help rural Khomas communities prepare themselves for disasters and emergencies.

By Alexandra Peard, Australian volunteer with the Namibia Red Cross Society

The headman is laughing and a group of young boys are falling over each other in giggles as Morenga, a Namibia Red Cross volunteer, demonstrates how to bandage a broken arm on a willing audience member in Aris, a community less than 30 kilometres south of Windhoek.

Morenga and I are joined by the Namibia Red Cross Khomas Regional Manager, DaCosta Kandukira; our National Communications Coordinator, Saara Iipinge; and representatives from the MICT and the Khomas Regional Council.

This is day four of a five-day campaign to raise public awareness about disaster management in eight rural Khomas communities - Hamis, Bloukrans, Esselmanhaar, Dordabis, Stinkwater, Baumgartsbrunn, Aris, and Krumhuk.

In each location, we meet with school children and community members to demonstrate basic first aid skills, discuss the emergencies and disasters threatening each community; demonstrate what to do in the case of an emergency, including how to contact the city of Windhoek emergency services; and explain what the Namibia Red Cross Society is and how our volunteers and members help vulnerable people.

As Morenga finishes his demonstration, the sun is setting and the white projector screen planted firmly in the sand behind him stands bright against the pink and yellow sky. We sit on plastic chairs, wooden benches and beer crates that the community has laid out in neat rows. It feels like a movie night, but the films and presentations we are about to watch pose a very serious question – is your community prepared for disasters and emergencies?

What disasters occur in Namibia?

In Namibia, the word ‘disaster’ often brings to mind the flooding that occurs regularly in the north of the country and often displaces tens of thousands of people. But there are disasters happening every day around the country - like road accidents, house fires, veld fires and injuries that are not treated properly or in a timely manner because community members do not know how to provide basic first aid. The effects of these disasters could be prevented or lessened if communities had more information about disaster and emergency preparedness.

Fires a major concern in rural Khomas communities

Fires are a particular concern in rural Khomas, where many people live in shacks without electricity and use candles for light.

In June 2012, fire destroyed the home that Ferciana Shishiveni shared with 14 of her family members in Windhoek’s Havana informal settlement. Thankfully, nobody was injured, but all the family’s belongings were destroyed in the flames.

Another family was not so fortunate. In August 2012, five family members perished when another Havana home was destroyed by fire. Only the owner of the house and two of her children survived. In both cases, the fire department believed an unattended candle was the likely cause.

When families are affected by disasters and emergencies like these, the Namibia Red Cross Society helps by providing emergency relief items like mattresses and food. However, as Namibia Red Cross Secretary General Ms Dorkas Kapembe-Haiduwa points out, “Prevention is always better than a band-aid!”

Understanding community needs and circumstances

Ms Kapembe-Haiduwa emphasises that we must understand the needs and circumstances of communities. It is unrealistic, for example, to expect vulnerable communities to stop making fires, because they do not have access to electricity or other means of lighting.

“At the Namibia Red Cross Society, we believe in building the capacity and coping mechanisms of the community to enable them to deal with whatever disaster they are faced with, without relying too much on outside help.

Partnering with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology

“We are committed to working side-by-side with the community to better understand the risks they face, mitigate common hazards, develop community action plans and conduct disaster trainings, collect and distribute relief items and implement early warning systems to better predict and react to threats,” said Ms Kapembe-Haiduwa.

It is this approach that prompted the MICT to partner with the Namibia Red Cross on the rural Khomas disaster management information campaign, which was launched at the Office of the Prime Minister in September 2012.

During the launch, the Minister of Information and Communication Technology, the Hon. Joel Kaapanda, said “Namibia has been accustomed to employing the traditional approach to the management of disaster or emergency situations… mainly focused on disaster response through provision of relief assistance, and recovery, with too little attention to preparedness, prevention, mitigation and community involvement.

“Most of the people who reside in the crisis prone areas usually consider such situations as an acceptable risk that they cannot change or prevent” said Mr Kaapanda.

When we finish our presentation in Aris it is almost 10pm and with the projector dismantled we are in total darkness – after hours of talking about the dangers of unattended fires, we wonder if people are purposely waiting for us to leave before lighting their candles now!

The headman stands before his community and thanks us for including them in our campaign. “We are very grateful for the information you have given us tonight” he says, “We want to learn more about disaster management and have more of our community members learn about first aid from the Red Cross so we know what to do in an emergency and so we can help our vulnerable people.”

The MICT and the Khomas office of the Namibia Red Cross will work together to continue the campaign in 2013, with plans to visit more rural Khomas communities and continue helping them to be better prepared for emergencies and disasters.