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date: 23 April 2019

Natural Hazards Governance in South Africa

Summary and Keywords

Disaster and natural hazard governance has become a significant policy and legislative focus in South Africa since the early 1990s. Born out of necessity from a dysfunctional apartheid system, the new emphasis on disaster risk reduction in the democratic dispensation also ushered in a new era in the management of natural hazards and their associated risks and vulnerabilities. Widely cited as an international best practice in policy and law development, South Africa has led the way in natural hazard governance in sub-Sahara Africa as well as in much of the developing world. Various practices in natural hazard governance in South Africa are alluded to. Particular attention is given to the disaster risks of the country as well as to the various natural hazards that drive this risk profile. Statutory and legislative aspects are discussed through a multisectoral approach, and by citing a number of case studies, we show the application of natural hazard governance in South Africa. Certain remaining challenges are highlighted that are faced by the South Africa government such as a lack of political will at the local government level, deficits in risk governance, difficulties in resource allocation, a lack of intergovernmental relations, and a need for enhanced community participation, ownership, and decision making.

Keywords: natural hazard management, South Africa, disaster, governance, disaster risk reduction, disaster risk management


Although the occurrence of natural hazards cannot be stopped, various governance instruments exist which can assist in the prevention and mitigation of such hazards becoming unmanageable disasters. An appropriate policy and regulatory framework is an essential part of risk management. While this policy and framework are government’s responsibility, civil society organizations can do much to influence policy (Twigg, 2004). In the South African environment, policy development in the management of natural hazards has changed and developed since the new democratic dispensation in 1994. This ongoing process has ensured some of the best laws and policies for disaster risk reduction on the African continent. However, the statutory and legislative process is not without its flaws, and local level implementation remains a significant obstacle to natural hazard governance (Botha et al., 2011b).

A broad look at natural hazards management within the South African context is presented here. It follows a systematic approach in analyzing the legislative and practical implication for the management of South Africa’s disaster risk profile. Hydrometeorological and geological hazards are the focus of attention. Each of these are discussed in relation to their impact on society, the various laws governing them, and the institutions and stakeholders involved in their management. Case studies are given that illustrate how risk reduction governance has or has not occurred. A number of challenges are presented, which still remain. First, however, it is imperative to give an overview of the disaster risk profile of South Africa as well as the governance framework within which natural hazards governance must occur.

South African Disaster Risk Profile

South Africa comprises an area of roughly 1,218,000 km2, with a coastline of almost 3,000 km. The country borders the Atlantic and Indian oceans as well as Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho. South Africa has a low level of precipitation, with an average rainfall of 497 mm per annum. It has six different rainfall regions (higher rainfall on the east coast and becoming increasingly arid toward the west—see Figure 1), high evaporation rates, and high seasonal climatic variability with distinct rainfall patterns (Smithers & Schulze, 2002). The climate is typically warm and dry, with winter temperatures rarely falling below 0º C and summer maxima frequently above 35º C (Schulze, 2003). The country encompasses a broad grouping of vegetation types classified into nine biomes with high levels of biodiversity (Department of Environmental Affairs, 2012, p. 87).

Natural Hazards Governance in South AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Rainfall seasonality map of South Africa.

Source: From Schulze (2003).

The country is vulnerable to the vagaries of El Niño- and La Niña-induced events because of its geographical positioning and features (Mason, 2001, p. 329). Climate change is regarded as a key emerging environmental issue as South Africa is located in a region highly susceptible and vulnerable to this phenomenon (Department of Environmental Affairs, 2017; Engelbrecht, McGregor, & Engelbrecht, 2009). Projected climate change impacts are that the western parts of the country will become drier, certain areas will experience shorter rainfall seasons, and that air temperatures, particularly in the interior, will rise (Department of Environmental Affairs, 2012, pp. 224–225; Niang et al., 2014, p. 1209). In addition to sea level rise, the intensity and the frequency of extreme weather events, floods, and droughts may also increase (Department of Environmental Affairs, 2007).

Administratively, the country is divided into nine provinces and 257 municipalities (Municipal Demarcation Board, 2016, p. 11). According to the latest available statistics, South Africa has a population of 55.19 million, with Gauteng, the smallest province, accommodating 24% of the population. Kwa-Zulu Natal is the second most densely populated province with 19.8%. The Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces are experiencing a net outmigration of people, while the Western Cape and Gauteng are estimated to receive a net inflow of migrants (StatsSA, 2016, p. 1). The latter two provinces are 96% (Gauteng) and 90% (Western Cape) urbanized, with the Northern Cape and Free State both being more than 75% urbanized. The converse applies to the other provinces, all being less than the national level of 56% urbanization (Kok & Collinson, 2006, p. 22). One can thus argue that the complexities of urban disaster risk are and will become more pronounced.

There is a wide range of natural and human-induced hazards in South Africa that could potentially lead to disaster events. These include droughts, urban and rural fires, floods and dam failures, earthquakes and sinkholes, epidemics, storms, and spillages of hazardous waste and materials (Mulugeta et al., 2007). In terms of traditional natural hazards, between 1980 and 2016, there were 89 declared disaster events, killing 2,022 people and affecting more than 21 million (CRED, 2009). On average, more than half a million people per annum in South Africa are affected by natural hazards at an average total economic damage rate of US$130 million per annum. The most frequently occurring natural disasters are (in order of frequency) floods and storm events, droughts, and fires. Although floods are more deadly (accounting for 57.1% of people killed by disaster type) and also costlier in terms of estimated economic damages, droughts are by far the most wide-ranging in their felt effects (accounting for 93.7% of people affected by disasters) (CRED, 2009).

In order to prevent and mitigate natural hazards, the South African government embarked on an extensive statutory and legislative process in 1996 to entrench disaster risk reduction within government structures.

Disaster Risk Reduction in South Africa

Every government has a legal obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of her citizens; therefore, the disaster risk reduction process should be driven from within the state system (Reid & Van Niekerk, 2008; Van Niekerk, 2014b). The absence of political will and clear policy guidelines to ensure disaster risk reduction measures are implemented will only lead to further risk-creating behavior and unsustainable development practices. Disaster risk management should find embodiment at all levels and sectors in government.

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) in South Africa developed from a historical culture of civil defence (Cronjé, 1993). Established in the height of the Second World War, civil defence never reached the institutional significance and importance in South Africa it did in Europe. It was not until 1965, when emergency planning was established as an independent department in the South African public sector, that civil defence gained more traction. With the promulgation of the Civil Defence Act (Act 39 of 1966; shortened to 39/1966), a Directorate Civil Defence was instituted. The Civil Defence Act mainly focused on establishing civil defence as a function of national government, and accordingly, many local and provincial authorities did not implement civil defence services. In 1969, the Directorate Civil Defence was moved to the Department of Defence (Potgieter, 1980), as it was argued that due to the vast resources of the National Defence Force, civil protection would be able to function more effectively (Du Plessis, 1971).

Up until 1994, civil protection services were rendered under the Civil Protection Act (67/1977) (as amended), and the Fundraising Act (107/1978). The first act provided for the operations of civil protection at all tiers of government, while the Fundraising Act provided mechanisms for the funding of disaster social rehabilitation (South Africa, 1998). Owing to the 1994 floods in the Cape Flats and the extreme hardship suffered by the poorest of the poor, government realized that the mechanisms espoused by the Civil Protection Act were inadequate. This resulted in a cabinet resolution to follow international trends and take a new look at civil protection and align its thinking with the concept of disaster (risk) management.

National and Provincial Level Governance

After a process of wide consultation on a new approach to the management of disasters and hazards, the Green Paper on Disaster Management was published in February 1998 (South Africa, 1998; Van Niekerk, 2001). The Green Paper, which highlighted the need for a holistic mechanism for the management of disasters in South Africa, was followed in 1999 by the White Paper on Disaster Management, which culminated in the promulgation of the Disaster Management Act (57/2002) in 2002. The Disaster Management Act calls for the development of a national policy in the form of the National Disaster Management Framework (NDMF). This policy framework guides and informs all aspects of disaster risk management for the whole of South Africa and was published in May 2005. Widely cited as one of the most progressive disaster management laws in the world (Pelling & Holloway, 2006, p. 17) because it predates both the World Conference on Disaster Reduction and the Hyogo Framework for Action, and it generated particular interest as an example of international best practice, the implementation of the Disaster Management Act initially experienced severe challenges at all levels of government (Botha & Van Niekerk, 2013; Van Niekerk, 2014a). To overcome some of these challenges (such as lack of local level accountability and clarity on funding—see the research of Van Niekerk, 2014a), the Disaster Management Amendment Act (16/2015) (South Africa, 2015) was published.

On a national and provincial level, disaster management is listed in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa as a concurrent provincial and national sphere competence (South Africa, 1996). The Disaster Management Act (57/2002) as amended by the Disaster Management Amendment Act (16/2015) makes provision for the establishment of Disaster Risk Management Centers (DRMCs) at each sphere of government, namely, local, provincial, and national. The aim of these centers is to become the focal point and conduit of all disaster risk reduction and hazards-related information in its specific geographical area of responsibility. To assist such DRMCs and to ensure inclusive and wide consultation with all stakeholders, a Disaster Risk Management Advisory Forum (DRMAF) for each DRMC are created. Such a forum brings together public sector departments, the private sector, volunteers, researchers and academics, traditional leaders, communities, and other interested parties to jointly consider and solve complex disaster risk issues. On a policy level, each municipality and each province are expected to develop their own disaster risk management policy framework, which must be aligned with the NDMF. Although a DRMC is created in the administration of each sphere of government, the law places a premium on the involvement of all public sector entities through the identification and appointment of disaster risk management focal points (Khangale, 2017). To this end, it has become a common cause for sector departments to develop and implement their own DRMCs, as is the case in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the Department of Health, Department of Rural Development, the South African National Defence Force, and the South African Police Services.

In essence, South Africa’s legislative landscape relating to DRR essentially comprises three elements: (a) generic DRR legislation (such as the Disaster Management Act), (b) hazard-specific legislation (such as the National Forest and Veld Fire Act), and (c) sector-specific legislation (i.e., the Mine and Health Safety Act), as highlighted in Table 1 (IFRC, 2011, p. 27).

Table 1. Selected Laws Pertaining to Disaster Risk Reduction

Name of Legislation

Description of Provisions Relevant to DRR

Applicable, Chapter, or Section

Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

Bill of Rights

Chapter 2, specifically sections 11, 24,

Principles of cooperative government and intergovernmental relations

Section 41 (1) (b)

Objects of local government

Section 152 (1) (d)

Disaster Management Act, 2002 (with special reference to the national sphere of government)

Contents of national disaster management framework

Section 7

Objective of the NDMC

Section 9

General powers and duties of the NDMC

Section 15

Disaster management information system

Section 17

Disaster management plans and strategies

Section 19

Prevention and mitigation

Section 20

Monitoring, measuring performance and evaluating disaster management plans and prevention, mitigation and response initiatives

Section 21

Annual reports

Section 24

Preparation of disaster management plans

Section 25

National contributions to alleviate effects of local and provincial disasters

Section 57

Fire Brigade Services Act, 1987

Definition of service includes a provision for the preventing the outbreak or spread of a fire

Section 1

Regulations regarding the safety requirements to be complied with on premises in order to reduce the risk of fire or other danger or to facilitate the evacuation of the premises in the event of such danger

Section 15 (1) (d)

Regulations regarding the use, manufacture, storage, or transportation of explosives, fireworks, petroleum, or any other flammable or combustible substance, gas, or any other dangerous substance

Section 15 (1) (e)

National Veld and Forest Fire Act, 1998

Establishment, recognition, duties, and functioning of Fire Protection Associations (FPAs). These FPAs must deal with all aspects of veldfire prevention and firefighting.

Chapter 2

The prevention of veldfires through a fire danger rating system

Chapter 3

Veldfire prevention through firebreaks

Chapter 4

Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act, 2013

Development principles notably the principles of spatial sustainability and spatial resilience

Section 7

Preparation of spatial development frameworks

Section 12

Mine and Health Safety Act, 1996

Objects of the Act

Section 1

Health and safety at mines

Chapter 2

Safety at Sports and Recreational Events Act, 2010

Responsibility for safety and security at events

Chapter 2

Event safety and security planning committee

Section 15

Functions of event safety and security planning committee

Section 16

Event safety and security measures

Section 23

Environmental Management Act, 1998

National environmental management principles

Section 2

Integrated environmental management, general objectives

Section 23

Duty of care and remediation of environmental damage

Section 28

Control of emergency incidents

Section 30

National Water Act, 1988

Purpose of Act (specific reference to reducing and preventing pollution and degradation of water resources, promotion of dam safety, and managing floods and droughts).

Section 2

Preventing and remedying effects of pollution

Section 19

Control of emergency incidents

Section 20

Dam safety

Chapter 12

Public Finance Management Act, 1999

Use of funds in emergency situations

Section 16 & 25

Source: Khangale (2017).

Local Level Disaster Risk Reduction

The duty for minimizing disaster risks and their impacts has become a shared responsibility between all levels of government and all line function departments since 1994. Beside the creation of formal structures, the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act (32/2000) (South Africa, 2000) places the onus on each municipality (local, district, and metropolitan) to integrate disaster risk management within their integrated development plan process. Thus, local government must consider the disaster risk implications in each and every development project and intervention (risk creation), but also the mitigation potential of such development (e.g., ensuring proper environment impact assessments before a development project is approved, or changing or enhancing a project to also make provision for disaster risk reduction measures such as land use planning or providing access to clean water). In this way, solving disaster risk problems becomes a developmental intervention.

The Disaster Management Act and NDMF furthermore requires local authorities to involve communities in the assessment and management of their natural hazards profiles. This can be seen in the major emphasis placed on the role of volunteers in both policy and legislative instruments. The volunteer regulations emerging from the Disaster Management Act were the first regulations to be published (South Africa, 2010). The regulations state that any South African citizen over the age of 16 and who is declared medically fit for performing the functions expected of a volunteer may become a volunteer in the municipality within which she or he resides. Furthermore, it has become a common cause for municipalities to adopt community-based disaster risk reduction interventions (DIPECHO, 2010; Van Niekerk & Coetzee, 2012; Van Riet & Van Niekerk, 2012; Zweig, 2017). In doing so, some communities are directly consulted as the creators of disaster and hazard-specific knowledge (Holloway & Roomaney, 2008; Zweig, 2015). In essence, one would thus expect local level adoption of the principles of disaster risk reduction, which will foster a culture of safety.

Botha et al. (2011b) and Botha and Van Niekerk (2013), however, clearly show that very little of these activities is actually occurring at the municipal level, which hinders devolution of benefits to communities. This is largely ascribed to a lack of funds, capacities, skills, unclear mandates, and political will on the side of government structures. Zweig (2015, 2017) and Van Riet and Van Niekerk (2012) show how successes in community involvement in the management of their risks can be achieved, even if direct municipal involvement is lacking. Their research indicates that communities are more than capable of identifying and assessing their hazards and risks and suggesting corrective actions (although direct actions seem to be lacking due to incapacity and a culture of state dependence). Thus, in a country like South Africa where disaster risk management is heavily regulated, yet not implemented, other methods of reaching communities are possible. One should note, however, that the existence and long history of the development of the current policy and legislative instruments is definitely aiding community-level interventions in creating a dialogue space with government decision makers (Van Niekerk, 2014a). Such legislative instruments provide civil society with an entry point into the disaster risk reduction conversation with local level office bearers. Nevertheless, South Africa remains a vast country plagued with a number of natural and anthropogenic hazards which require concerted management efforts.

Hydrometeorological Hazards in South Africa

Hydrological extremes form a normal part of South Africa’s climate. These extremes occur all over the world and are, on their own, not harmful. However, when these types of extreme magnitude hydrological processes interact with people, they are responsible for causing harm or damage of varying magnitudes and severity (Kabubi, 2011). The effects and impacts of these hazards on South African communities are predicted to increase in intensity and frequency as a result of climate change (Louw & Van Wyk, 2011; IPCC, 2012; Dasgupta et al., 2014, p. 623). Most importantly, the impacts of these hazards are exacerbated by poor and ineffective governance, thus causing damage to local communities, their livelihoods, and their infrastructure (Kabubi, 2011). It is therefore important to explore natural hazard governance and management of these hydrological hazards in the South African context so as to suggest appropriate governance arrangements to reduce the impacts of these hazards. This section focuses on governance of three main hydrometeorological hazards prevalent in South Africa, namely, floods, droughts, and veldfires.

Flood Management in South Africa

South Africa is prone to floods of high magnitude and duration coupled with severe impacts on communities (Ndiaye & Diagne, 2009; Smithers & Schulze, 2002). Flooding of rivers and coastlines is the most frequent and damaging of all natural hazards (Jongman et al., 2017). In South Africa, floods occur naturally as a result of South Africa’s highly variable climate. However, various factors such as precipitation in the form of torrential storms or episodes of heavy rainfall also result in flooding (Els, 2011).

South Africa is often severely affected by flood impacts (e.g., McBean & Rodgers, 2010; Pharoah et al., 2016) owing to high population densities surrounding rivers, inadequate flood control measures, and poor early warning systems. In addition, floods pose a greater risk to communities in close proximity to rivers or in low-lying areas (Baskar & Baskar, 2009). Flooding is normally experienced in summer in most provinces of South Africa, with the exception of the Western Cape province, which is a winter rainfall region (Musungu et al., 2011). The south and east coasts receive rain throughout the year, with the west coast being a very dry and arid region. Figure 2 shows areas prone to floods in and around cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and Cape Town. These areas are also highly populated and thus floods may affect large numbers of people.

According to Wisner (1995, p. 261), urban policy in South Africa under the apartheid government was mainly to control “non-White” access to and residences in urban areas. However, non-Whites resettled in the outlying periurban zones by setting up illegal shack communities on vacant land close to job opportunities. Wisner (1995, p. 261) maintains that spatial apartheid produced extreme densities, leading to subdivision and construction of one-room shacks for relatives or renters. Spatial patterns of an extremely dense urban settlement with insufficient services to critical health and safety hazards developed (Wisner, 1995). In addition, natural hazards such as flooding and landslides were not controlled and managed, since most non-Whites settled in areas that were not provisionally planned for.

Natural Hazards Governance in South AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Annual flood frequency in South Africa.

Source: From Botha et al. (2011a).

Impact on Society

Flood losses are increasing rapidly in South Africa, driven by economic developments in floodplains, increases in extreme precipitation events, and a rising global sea level due to climate change and variation (Jongman et al., 2017). In 2011, more than 120 people were killed in thunderstorms and flooding in South Africa. During these rainy seasons, most communities are impacted by floods in a variety of ways (Musungu et al., 2011; Meyer et al., 2009). First, in South Africa, the major impact of flooding is loss of life due to drowning, structural failures, damaged infrastructure and property, and health problems (i.e., spreading of diseases). When floods occur, inhabitants who live in close proximity to rivers or within flood plains are at risk of losing their households, lives, and livelihoods (Holloway & Roomaney, 2008; Schulze, 2003). Els (2011) maintains that floods mostly tend to affect overcrowded urban areas, while in rural areas, flooding specifically affects farming lands, resulting in crop and livestock losses, and pest diseases increase because of temporary pooling of water (Kabubi, 2011). It is also in these affected communities where sociocultural and socioeconomic vulnerability are the highest. Thus, as a result of these severe impacts, governance to address these impacts becomes a significance matter. Despite all the negative effects that can occur due to flooding, most communities still relocate back to flood-prone areas (Kabubi, 2011) due to livelihood considerations.

Institutions and Stakeholders Involved in Flood Governance

Multiple-stakeholder collaboration addresses flood risk and the impending impacts of floods in different communities in different ways. The notion of multiple-stakeholder collaboration is derived from collaborative governance, which is defined as the process that brings “multiple stakeholders together in common forums with public agencies to engage in consensus-oriented decision-making” (Ansell & Gash, 2007, p. 543).

Flood risk governance in South Africa requires collective efforts made up of different departments, including the following:

  • Disaster Risk Management Centers (DRMCs)

  • South African Weather Services

  • Department of Human Settlements

  • South African Police Services

  • Roads and Infrastructure

  • Department of Environmental Affairs

  • Departments of Health

  • Water and Sanitation

  • Social Development

  • Private Sector

  • Civil Society.

Flood risk governance focuses on four aspects: (a) disaster planning, (b) infrastructure operations maintenance, (c) appropriate development, and (d) effective communications (Desportes et al., 2015). DRMCs and developmental departments are responsible for flood mapping and updating disaster risk-related information through their disaster risk management plans. DRMCs also facilitate actions such as media communications and sending out early warnings. These centers are responsible for compiling task teams to develop proactive strategies for settlements that are at high risk of flooding, while providing contingency plans by mobilizing resources before a flood event (Pharoah, 2006). The South African Weather Service is responsible of providing flood warnings and weather reports in assisting the teams during planning and preparation. In most communities that experience floods, governance-related issues are conducted through a number of coping mechanisms, including mobilizing resources from community leaders for assistance and evacuating to a place of safety (Zweig, 2017, 2015; Ziervogel et al., 2014; Van Niekerk & Coetzee, 2012).

Legislation, Policies, and Plans

A number of laws govern flood-related issues in South Africa. Article 17 of the National Building Regulations and Building Standard Act (103/1977) regulates the resistance of buildings against floods while Article 10 regulates the erection of buildings on sites that are subject to flooding and do not drain properly. The Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (43/1983), Article 8, makes provision for relief schemes for the reparation of damage to natural agricultural resources or soil conservation as a result of floods. The National Water Act (36/1998), Article 144, ensures that people who might be affected by floods have access to information regarding potential flood hazards. Article 145 of the National Water Act adds that an early warning system in relation to flood events may be established by the minister responsible for water affairs.

South Africa has a flood risk management plan that highlights the hazards and risks of flooding from rivers, the sea, surface water, groundwater, and reservoirs (Desportes et al., 2015). This plan typically indicates the flood risk area, draws conclusions from the flood hazard and risk maps, includes objectives for the purpose of managing flood risk, and includes proposed measures for achieving the objectives of the plan. Flood risk management involves developing a flood risk index which is done through analyzing past flood events. This entails evaluating trends in rainfall and incidents reported as well as acquiring and evaluating relevant geographic information system (GIS) data (Bouchard et al., 2007). Flood risk management also highlights the importance of creating guidelines for community-level structure improvements and effective communication methods (Desportes et al., 2015). Appropriate communication methods in conveying information and developing the capacity of the community is proposed as part of the flood risk management plan (Bouchard et al., 2007). It can be argued that most of these flood risk management measures are normative. The research of Zweig (2015, 2017), Van Riet and Van Niekerk (2012), and Pharoah (2006) cites some examples of how communities are minimizing their flood risks through community-based approaches. However, as can be seen from the Case Study, community-based approaches should not be seen as the only solution.

Source: Desportes et al. (2015).

Drought Management in South Africa

Drought is a major, although too common, feature of the southern African climate and usually leads to a wide range of devastating impacts (Van Zyl, 2006). According to CRED (2011), drought is the most frequent and complex form of disaster affecting a large portion of the population in South Africa. Ngaka (2012, p. 1) also confirms that during the past decade, the frequency and impact of disasters in South Africa have increased significantly, while drought has been the dominating hazard at most times. As a result, drought has become a permanent feature of the South African agriculture sector (Ngaka, 2012; Vogel et al., 2010). Thus, South Africa has a long history of addressing drought through various management practices (Ngaka, 2012; Vogel et al., 2010). Nonetheless, drought management in South Africa remains reactive rather than proactive. Figure 3 shows the drought-affected municipalities for the years 2014 and 2015.

Natural Hazards Governance in South AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 3. Drought-affected municipalities in South Africa (2014 to 2015).

Source: From Agricultural Research Council (2015).

Impact on Society

Drought negatively affects all sectors and every aspect of life in South Africa. According to Van Zyl (2006), the agricultural sector is greatly affected by continuous drought. Drought may threaten food security in South Africa by affecting production from irrigated and rain-fed agriculture. On a national economic level, the costs of importing food to the country are increasing, leading to hiking of food prices (Vogel, 2000). In terms of the environmental impacts, droughts result in loss of vegetation, national and local planting, and harvesting plantation that is vital to the ecosystems and the environment as a whole (Batisani, 2011). Additionally, drought has several environmental effects such as land degradation, soil erosion, and severe water losses in surface and land quality, which decreases agricultural production for crop and livestock farmers (Vogel, 2000).

Socioeconomic impacts of drought also include compromised health and safety of communities coupled with a decrease of quality of life, increased food insecurity, and conflict arising from shared services such as water allocation (Alston & Kent, 2004, p. 23). Additionally, many livestock farmers need to move their cattle to better grazing lands, which may result in disease outbreaks, the spreading of animal diseases (Vogel, 2000), and a heightened potential for community conflicts. Drought is also characterized by various human health impacts. The short-term effects of drought on human health such as dehydration and malnutrition are caused by water shortages concomitant with food shortages and contaminated water, which most people resort to when water is scarce (Ole-MoiYoi, 2013). In both children and adults, malnutrition compromises the immune system, thereby increasing the likelihood of predispositions to a multitude of infections caused by viruses, bacterial fungi, and other parasitic infestations (Ole-MoiYoi, 2013).

Institutions and Stakeholders Involved in Drought Governance

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries is primarily responsible for assessing and monitoring drought using drought indices such as the Standard Precipitation Index (SPI), the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), the Crop Moisture Index (CMI), the Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI), the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), and the Reclamation Drought Index (RDI) (Jordaan et al., 2015). DRMCs as role players are important in the coordination and implementation of DRR measured before and during drought-related incidents. The National Disaster Management Center (NDMC) together with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coordinate and manage other stakeholders in following guidelines and procedures in determining drought risk, assessment of drought vulnerability and drought response mechanisms (Jordaan, 2011). Once drought has been detected, various drought assessments are undertaken by government, particularly the Department of Rural, Environment, and Agricultural Development (READ), the various DRMCs, and the Department of Agriculture, to establish the severity and intensity of the event. Subsequently, a plan to develop a drought response mechanism is implemented to reduce the impact of the phenomenon (Jordaan, 2011).

The Department of Water and Sanitation makes provision of maintenance of water resources such as boreholes and provides more water to affected communities. This department is charged with monitoring dam levels and groundwater supply and also keeping other departments aware of the water table and dam levels in all areas at any given time. The South African Weather Service’s role is to provide rainfall data and projections, drought early warnings, and weather predictions and reports on a weekly and monthly basis to the DRMCs (for dissemination to affected communities). Natural hazard governance for drought is also undertaken at the community level through the establishment of farmers’ associations and community organizations that speak on behalf of farmers. Farmers’ associations usually help farmers to develop a stable, profitable environment for agricultural development. During drought occurrences, farmers’ associations engage in drought planning and response, including developing drought aid funds, mobilization of resources from other farmers’ associations, and participation in governmental drought task teams. Drought governance also requires additional assistance from the Agricultural Research Council, academia, and the private sector in making their valuable inputs toward lessening the issues faced by farmers and the government.

Legislation, Policies, and Plans

The Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (43/1983), Article 8, makes provision for relief schemes for the reparation of damage to natural agricultural resources or soil conservation as a result of drought. The National Water Act (36/1998), Articles 144 and 145, makes provision for ensuring that all people who might be affected have access to information regarding potential drought hazards and adds that the establishment of an early warning system in relation to drought events should be developed.

The DRMCs are responsible for the establishment and support of a drought committee or an interdepartmental working group on drought (drought task team) (DAFF, 2015). The drought task team is responsible for proactively developing and implementing a drought plan and consists of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the NDMC, the Department of Water Affairs, organised agriculture, the South African Weather Service, and civil society organizations (DAFF, 2015; Jordaan, 2011). The task team’s responsibility includes overseeing the rollout and update of drought risk assessments and providing guidance and advice to the heads of the respective DRMCs regarding the declaration of a state of disaster and the application of relief schemes. Relief schemes are mostly contingency plans that aim to provide aid for those most in need following drought impact assessments. The drought task team is also responsible for reviewing the effectiveness of early warning systems, developing mitigation and preparedness measures, and regularly updating drought impact assessments (Jordaan, 2011).

Source: North West Provincial Disaster Risk Management Centre (2016).

Veldfire Management in South Africa

The frequency of veldfires is increasing, and these fires are affecting development in both urban and rural areas (Kruger et al., 2006). According to Levine (1996), lightning fires occur mainly in the middle of the year, while the primary ignition role of lightning usually affects vegetation and crop growth. Trollope (1993) states that anthropogenic fires, which occur as a result of negligence or accident and where the wind carries fires away from their points of origin, are also on the increase. Figure 2 shows that veldfire risks are a regular occurrence in South Africa.

Natural Hazards Governance in South AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 4. Veld and forest fire risk map.

Source: From the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (2009).

Impact on Society

Veldfires in South Africa cause severe losses to livelihoods, life, infrastructure, property, and the environment (Forsyth et al., 2010). Economically, veldfire hazard affects assets such as infrastructure, industrial facilities, fodder, livestock, homesteads, tourists’ resorts, and plantation forests (Forsyth et al., 2010; Levine, 1996). Even though veldfires can be advantageous in that they reduce dead vegetation, stimulate new growth, improve habitat for animals, and are a necessary part of the ecological fire regime in South Africa (Van Niekerk, 2014b), they can destroy the structure of the surface soil horizon, causing accelerated erosion, consequent loss of soil, and negative catchment values (Kruger et al., 2006).

The risk of human-induced veldfires is increasing because of the expansion of urban and periurban settlements, exposing lives and homes to fires in the neighboring veld, and simultaneously increasing the chance of igniting veldfires (Trollope & Potgieter, 1985). In agricultural areas, the risk of veldfires is also increasing in plantation forests and where crops such as maize, wheat, and sunflowers are grown on a large scale. Veldfire risk is twofold: that arising from unwanted veldfires which cause damage to assets, and that arising from ecologically inappropriate fire regimes in environments where fire plays an ecological role (Kruger et al., 2006). Veldfires have a positive side in that fire-dependent vegetation requires fire to maintain its biodiversity; otherwise it will be dominated by woody plant species. Also, areas covered in sour grass (in high-rainfall and cool areas) require frequent and regular fire in order for grazing to be effective (Kruger et al., 2006).

Institutions and Stakeholders Involved in Veldfire Governance

Kruger et al. (2006) states that the risk of and losses due to veldfires have increased since 2000, which has led to more role players and stakeholders being involved in veldfire management within South Africa. The leading sector in veldfire management is the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries because of the vast impacts of veldfire on the agriculture and forestry sector. The NDMC plays a coordinating role on a national level, while municipal fire and disaster risk management services and fire protection associations are localized and decentralized. To prevent and combat veldfires, institutions such as nature reserves and mining companies have developed fire management plans. Additionally, nonprofit and voluntary organizations such as fire protection associations and the government initiative called Working on Fire (see “Case Study: Working on Fire as a Good Practice Entity for Veldfire Management in South Africa”) support government in veldfire governance.

Legislation, Policies, and Plans

The National Veld and Forest Fire Act (101/1998) provides for the establishment of fire protection associations (FPAs) comprised of local landowners for collective veldfire management. It also provides for their empowerment through registration and recognition of fire protection officers and sets out their duties and responsibilities. The act additionally makes provision for the development of a national fire danger rating system and veldfire prevention through firebreaks. Also, the Disaster Management Act (57/2002) outlines the role of disaster risk management during veldfire disasters. The National Environmental Management Act (107/1998) stipulates that steps should be taken to avoid or minimize the effects of an incident (like a fire) on public health and the environment. The Fire Brigade Service Act (99/1987) provides for the establishment of fire brigade services with the purpose of, among others, preventing the outbreak and spreading of a fire, and protecting life or property against fire. In addition, the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act (32/2000) expects municipalities to promote a safe environment in the municipality.

Source: Working on Fire (2016).

Geological Hazards

In South Africa, few people lose their live as a result of earthquakes or sinkholes, and the events are better known to cause structural damage. Geological hazards in South Africa such as earthquakes and sinkholes cause economic setbacks, with the environment needing to be rehabilitated at significant costs.

Sinkhole Management in South Africa

Sinkholes (karren, dolines, poljes, gorges, and dry valleys) are all features of karst terrains. A karst terrain is a landform that is created mainly due to the dissolving of rock such as limestone, dolomite, gypsum, halite (rock salt), or marble with efficient underground drainage present. Karst terrains can also include other features, such as caves, sinking streams, pavements, and large springs. The surface morphology of karst terrains forms in response to rainwater as it enters the ground as well as to groundwater flows (Veni et al., 2001, p. 11). Water combines with carbon dioxide to form a weak carbonic acid, which dissolves dolomite, causing sinkholes to form (Oosthuizen & Richardson, 2011, pp. 1–3). Approximately 25% of the Gauteng Province as well as parts of Mpumulanga, Limpopo, and North West and Northern Cape provinces are underlain by dolomite (Oosthuizen & Richardson, 2011, p. 1) (see Figure 5).

Natural Hazards Governance in South AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 5. Dolomite hazard map of South Africa.

Source: From the Council for Geoscience (2013).

Impact on Society

Sinkholes appearing in urban areas cause disruption and pose certain health and physical hazards to communities which may include partial or complete loss of buildings and structures, loss of vegetation, contamination of aquifers, displacement of residents, closure of roads and businesses, financial losses, and possible fall hazards for people and animals (Mann, 2015, p. 13). Contaminants introduced into groundwater systems as a result of sinkholes may appear in water supply wells downstream (Land, 2017). As developing societies tend to be poor, a sinkhole in such a community has a profound impact on people’s livelihoods as they would likely be relocated away from their known social structures and would not be able to return to their normal lives.

Institutions and Stakeholders Involved in Sinkhole Governance

Local authorities play a coordinating role when a sinkhole appears. Depending on where the sinkhole forms, other role players such as road agencies, different national departments such as Water Affairs, Public Works, Housing and Mineral Affairs, as well as parastatals such as the Council for Geoscience, Eskom (the state-owned electricity company), water boards, and private institutions of geoprofessionals are all involved in the pre- and postphases of sinkholes. Private institutions work together with the Council for Geoscience to determine the extent and the size of the sinkhole and advise the landowner (who should take ultimate responsibility to ensure that the sinkhole is stabilized) on the way forward. If peoples’ living arrangements are under threat from the sinkhole, the Departments of Housing and Mineral Affairs assists the affected people with temporary accommodations.

Legislation, Policies, and Plans

In 2009, the Departments of Public Works and Water Affairs, together with the University of Pretoria, the Council for Geoscience, and Water Geosciences Consulting published dolomite guidelines, noting which documents are available on procedures for building on dolomitic land. These documents include the following: A Guideline for the Assessment, Planning, and Management of Groundwater Resources within Dolomitic Areas in South Africa (Department of Water Affairs); Guideline for Engineering Geological Characterization and Development on Dolomitic Land (Council for Geoscience and the South African Institute of Engineering and Environmental Geologists); Consultants Guide: Approach to Sites on Dolomite (Council for Geocscience); The Department of Public Works Guideline (2004) (Department of Public Works); and Geotechnical Site Investigations for Housing Developments (National Department of Housing).

Local authorities are authorized to make their own bylaws, as is the case with the Dolomite Risk Management Bylaw of the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality within the Gauteng province (2013) and the Water and Sanitation Bylaw of the Emfuleni Local Municipality (2004)—prohibiting citizens from sinking boreholes on premises situated in a dolomite area, with the onus of determining the dolomite situation resting on the citizen. The Rand Water Board Statutes (Private) Act (17/1950) limited the board to a maximum quantity of water being pumped from dolomite formations. This act was repealed by the National Water Act (36/1998), with no mention of dolomite in the new act. The South African Bureau for Standards has also published National Standards (series 1936) relating to the development of dolomite land (SANS, 2012b) as well as repairing sinkholes and subsidence in dolomite land (SANS, 2012a). In addition to these standards, the South African Council for Geoscience published a Consultants Guide for Approach to Sites on Dolomite Land in 2007.

Earthquake Management in South Africa

Earthquakes pose a great physical threat to communities through structures collapsing, and secondary hazards such as tsunamis, fires, and landslides. Added to this is the potential economic loss that can be sustained. Lomnitz and Wisner (2012, p. 310) argue that people living in zones frequented by earthquakes have learned to live with them. Earthquakes are an infrequent occurrence in South Africa and are predominantly caused by mining activities (Hartnady, 2002).

Institutions and Stakeholders Involved in Earthquake Governance

The Council for Geoscience is the main role player when it comes to seismic events occurring in South Africa, along with representatives from the Departments of Mineral Resources, Water, and Environmental Affairs, Rural Development and Land Reform, Human Settlements, Science and Technology, and the National Treasury, respectively (South Africa, 1993). Also involved are local government institutions such as corporate services, disaster and risk management, treasury, economic development, infrastructure and commercial services and environmental health, together with private institutions such as mining companies and private health care facilities.

Legislation, Policies, and Plans

The Geoscience Act (100/1993) established the Council for Geoscience, consisting of members from various national departments, with the chairperson appointed by the Minister of Mineral Resources. The objectives of the Council are to (a) promote the search for and exploitation of any mineral in South Africa; (b) undertake research in the field of geoscience; (c) act as a national advisory authority in respect to geohazards related to infrastructure and development, as well as geoenvironmental pollution brought about by mineral exploitation and other activities; and (d) provide specialized geoscientific services. In addition, the Western Cape Disaster Management Framework identified the national Department of Mineral Affairs as the lead agent for seismic risks and earthquakes (WCDLGH, 2007). The South African Bureau of Standards published the basis of structural design and actions for buildings and industrial structures as an eight-part series, with the fourth part relating to seismic actions and general requirements for buildings (SANS, 2011).

Challenges Going Forward

The South African disaster risk governance landscape is well developed and instituted. However, a number of challenges still remain in effectively and efficiently managing its natural hazard profile:

  • Political Will

    Though there may not be a lack of capacity in a number of South African municipalities and government departments, political will is often lacking. Political will incorporates leading by example and taking action in supporting legislation, policies, and plans regarding natural hazard governance. Political will requires the involvement of marginalized groups in the decision-making process and strategies to combat corruption at the local government level (Lewis, 2011). All government ministries and departments need to realize that they have a shared responsibility in natural hazard governance and that it cannot be left to one specific sector to address.

  • Risk Governance Deficits

    Risk governance involves at its core some basic functions according to the UNISDR’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. These functions include implementing early warning systems, conducting risk assessments, and managing the people and resources dedicated to DRR and risk communication. Risk governance deficits can be seen in South Africa in the failure of risk identification, framing, assessment, and communication. This includes missing, ignoring, or exaggerating early signs of risk and failure to adequately identify and involve relevant stakeholders during a risk assessment.

  • Resource Allocation

    Inadequate resource allocation is often experienced in South Africa. Without adequate resources, it is difficult to fund skilled and trained staff or to provide capacity building and awareness programs and activities necessary for ensuring that disaster and risk governance is pursued in all spheres of government. Inadequate resource allocation leads to a lack of appropriate skills and knowledge among key governmental role players in hazard governance, which may lead to Disaster Risk Management Centers being understaffed and incapacitated.

  • Intergovernmental Relations

    Though the object of the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act (13/2005) is to provide a framework for the national government, provincial governments, local governments, and all organs of state within those governments to facilitate coordination in the implementation of policy and legislation, such coordination is still lacking where departments at all levels of government tend to work on their own. Silo-based reporting structures and operating and funding mechanisms also hamper collaboration between departments. Political short-term unclear mandates, a lack of monitoring of departments, and regulatory barriers cause disarray in an effort toward collaborative management in natural hazard governance (Ziervogel et al., 2014).

  • Community Participation

    Community participation is probably the most important component of disaster and risk governance and may be described as a hidden capacity within the social fabric (Twigg, 2015). Participation of local communities is crucial in understanding local needs and empowering people to address those needs as well as to send out a message to local communities that their voice is valued. This, per se, strengthens the motivation for communities to get involved. However, it has been shown that community participation is still a major challenge in natural hazard governance.


The conundrum of natural hazard management in South Africa still remains: At which point does a decision-maker err on the side of caution, or when is an intervention too late to safeguard lives and livelihoods? The South African government remains the key role player in the management of the country’s disaster risk profile. The governance structure alluded to in this article is where natural hazard governance should occur. The article highlights the legislative process that took place since 1994, which ensured that South Africa enjoyed considerable international acclaim for its proactive and timely adoption of new-generation disaster risk reduction laws. However, research has shown that laws and policies without local implementation are fruitless. This situation, unfortunately, is present as of the early 21st century in much of South African local government. In the absence of governmental interventions, communities have taken it upon themselves to mitigate their risks, bringing about a focus on community-based disaster risk reduction. Nevertheless, local capacities, skills, and commitment are still lacking. Government therefore needs to ensure concerted and ongoing efforts toward natural hazard governance at all levels.

Political will, risk governance deficits, resource allocation, intergovernmental relations, and community participation are all challenges still facing the management of natural hazards, largely due to a “wait and see” approach by many government departments, or due to an overt absconding of their responsibility. However, one cannot dismiss the sterling work by those who have taken up the burden of natural hazards management. A number of good examples are presented in this article and they all relate to inclusive and coordinated governance approaches. Thus, governance of natural hazards should not be viewed as a one-sided activity by governments but an inclusive process that is driven by the desire toward local level risk reduction, resilience building, and the safeguarding of fragile livelihoods.


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