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date: 25 February 2021

Natural Hazards and Their Governance in Sub-Saharan Africafree

  • Dewald van NiekerkDewald van NiekerkAfrican Centre for Disaster Studies, North-West University
  •  and Livhuwani David NemakondeLivhuwani David NemakondeAfrican Centre for Disaster Studies, North-West University


The sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region, along with the rest of the African continent, is prone to a wide variety of natural hazards. Most of these hazards and the associated disasters are relatively silent and insidious, encroaching on life and livelihoods, increasing social, economic, and environmental vulnerability even to moderate events. With the majority of SSA’s disasters being of hydrometeorological origin, climate change through an increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events is likely to exacerbate the situation. Whereas a number of countries in SSA face significant governance challenges to effectively respond to disasters and manage risk reduction measures, considerable progress has been made since the early 2000s in terms of policies, strategies, and/or institutional mechanisms to advance disaster risk reduction and disaster risk management. As such, most countries in SSA have developed/reviewed policies, strategies, and plans and put in place institutions with dedicated staffs and resources for natural hazard management. However, the lack of financial backing, limited skills, lack of coordination among sectors, weak political leadership, inadequate communication, and shallow natural hazard risk assessment, hinders effective natural hazard management in SSA.

The focus here is on the governance of natural hazards in the sub-Saharan Africa region, and an outline of SSA’s natural hazard profile is presented. Climate change is increasing the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, thus influencing the occurrence of natural hazards in this region. Also emphasized are good practices in natural hazard governance, and SSA’s success stories are described. Finally, recommendations on governance arrangements for effective implementation of disaster risk reduction initiatives and measures are provided.


Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) disaster profile is closely linked to the vulnerability of its population and economy and the population’s often-low capacities to cope with natural hazards (World Bank, 2010; van Niekerk & Coetzee, 2012). SSA can be defined as the region south of the Sahara and comprises 48 countries (UNEP, 2002). The region is characterized by a large diversity in culture, socioeconomic conditions, and natural resources. A number of countries in SSA face significant governance challenges to effectively respond to disasters and implement risk reduction measures (World Bank, 2016; Hewitt, 2013). The key natural hazards and natural hazards governance practices in SSA are presented here. The role of climate change, which is increasing the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, thus influencing the occurrence of natural hazards, is highlighted. Furthermore, good practices in natural hazard governance are identified, and success stories are emphasized. Ultimately, recommendations on governance arrangements for effective implementation of disaster risk reduction initiatives and measures are provided.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s Natural Hazard Profile

Losses from natural disasters and people’s exposure to hazards are increasing in Africa (World Bank, 2016). As is true of the rest of the African continent, the SSA region is prone to a wide variety of natural hazards and the associated risk of disasters. Almost all countries in SSA are exposed to some kind of natural hazard. Phenomena such as floods, droughts, heat waves, epidemics, pest infestations (which occur frequently, though to a lesser extent, but sometimes with greater impact), hurricanes and cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis hold devastating consequences for the subcontinent. All these natural hazards have both a natural and a social dimension. In most cases, the social dimension is the deciding factor that turns a natural hazard into a disaster (Wilhite et al., 2014). The risk associated with any natural hazard for any region is a product of both the region’s exposure to the event (i.e., probability of occurrence at various severity levels) and the vulnerability of society to the event (Blaikie et al., 1994). Thus, the combination of the natural hazards and society’s vulnerability to those hazards magnifies the disaster risks the communities face. As such, the impacts of the hazard events in SSA are aggravated by low coping capacity, owing to high levels of poverty, reliance on rain-fed agriculture, and limited institutional capacity (Mulugeta et al., 2007). For instance, FAO (2015a) found that, on average, agriculture accounts for 22% of the total economic impact caused by natural hazards.

The Most Prominent Hazards in Sub-Saharan Africa

It is common knowledge that natural hazards in sub-Saharan Africa, as in the rest of the African continent, cause socioeconomic loss, with the poorest segment of the population carrying the brunt of such incidents. In 2015–2016, the region faced the most intense El Niño in decades, sparking a number of drought and flooding disasters. Figure 1 indicates the number of reported disasters and affected people by disaster type from 1970 to 2014. It is most likely that the 2015–2016 data will indicate another significant increase in drought and flood-related events (World Bank, 2016).

Figure 1. Number of reported disasters and number of people affected by disaster type in SSA (World Bank, 2016).

Hydrometeorological Hazards

Hydrometeorological hazards and associated events such as floods, droughts, tropical cyclones and strong winds, storm surges, extreme temperatures, forest fires, sand or dust storms, and landslides account for most of the disasters in SSA and impact nearly every country in the region (Mulugeta et al., 2007). Such events cause the majority of loss of life, livelihood, and destruction to infrastructure (Bhavnani et al., 2008). The subcontinent’s hydrological and climatological hazards are mainly associated with shifting patterns in weather and climate, with climate variability being the key challenge (Manyena, 2016). Therefore, climate change is likely to play a significant role in increasing the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events. Many of the extreme hydrometeorological events in sub-Saharan Africa are linked to the El Niño South Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon (Mulugeta et al., 2007). Of all the hydrometeorological hazards affecting SSA, drought affects the largest number of people, with floods occurring more frequently; both of these natural hazards account for 80% of the loss of life and 70% in economic losses linked to natural hazards (Bhavnani et al., 2008; World Bank, 2016).


The sub-Saharan Africa region has the greatest concentration of flood-risk hotspots. Human settlements in the floodplains are particularly threatened by the risk of flooding (Di Baldassarre et al., 2013). Types of floods include (fluvial) floods, flash floods, and glacial lake outburst floods. In the region, flooding occurs mainly as a result of periods of high precipitation and as an inherent consequence of tropical cyclones and storm surges (Kundzewicz et al., 2014). Intense and long-lasting rain is the most common cause of fluvial floods in larger river basins. In smaller basins, flooding may be caused by short-duration, high-intensity rainfall. Periods of extreme rainfall and recurrent floods in Africa appear to correlate with El Niño events and generate significant economic losses (Field et al., 2012). Therefore, various characteristics of the climatic system, most notably precipitation (intensity, duration, amount, timing, and phase rain), all have an effect on flooding.

The topographical and geological characteristics of an area, including drainage basin conditions, soil characteristics and status, presence of dykes, dams, and reservoirs, also determine the potential for flooding; in areas with steep slopes and unstable soils, flooding can lead to landslides, mudslides, and debris flows, particularly where land has been deforested (Mulugeta et al., 2007). Flooding has many other human-induced contributory causes such as land degradation; deforestation of catchment areas; increased population density along riverbanks; poor land-use planning, zoning, and control of floodplain development; inadequate drainage, particularly in cities; and inadequate management of discharges from river reservoirs. In the SSA region, floods mainly occur along the larger river basins, with flash floods causing damage mainly in urban areas (World Bank, 2010).

Flooding often leads to immediate deaths and injuries, infectious diseases such as malaria, and exposure of people to toxic substances (Gemeda & Sima, 2015). Flash floods in particular, which are caused by tropical cyclones and severe storms, are among the most devastating natural hazards in SSA. Flood-related fatalities and associated economic losses in SSA, as with the rest of the African continent, have increased dramatically over the past half century (Di Baldassarre et al., 2010). For example, the 2000 Mozambique floods resulted in over 700 reported deaths and affected more than 500,000 people, with economic losses amounting to US$500 million (Mulugeta et al., 2007). Between 1900 and 2016, a total of 937 recorded flood events affected over 72 million people, causing over 28,000 deaths, with economic losses amounting to US$8 billion (CRED-MDAT, 2016).

Flood-associated damage is a function not only of the depth, speed, and persistence of water but also of the dissolved and suspended load (debris flow) that floodwater carries (Kundzewicz et al., 2014), and these have the potential to impact human settlements (Field et al., 2012). Kundzewicz et al. (2014) citing Meyer et al. (2013) divided the cost imposed on societies and ecosystems by floods into impact or damage cost (losses) and subsequent risk reduction and adaptation costs. In arid and semiarid areas in the Horn of Africa, extreme rainfall and the accompanying floods are associated with higher risk of vector and epidemic diseases such as malaria, cholera, Rift Valley fever, dengue fever, and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (UNISDR Regional Office for Africa, 2014). The impacts of floods are exacerbated by weak flood protection, insufficient urban drainage, and increased runoff due to land degradation (World Bank, 2016).


Drought is a chronic problem in SSA. Estimates suggest that one-third of African people live in drought-prone areas and that over 220 million people are annually exposed to the hazard (UNFCCC, 2007). Between 2003 and 2013, drought affected 27 countries and nearly 150 million people in SSA (FAO, 2015b). FAO (2015a) estimates that crop and livestock production losses due to these droughts amounted to USD$23.5 billion, which represents approximately 77% of all production losses caused by droughts worldwide during the same period. It is likely that production losses due to drought in SSA are considerably higher given that not all losses are reported. In SSA, drought is frequent and severe as a result of the extreme variability of rainfall, as most parts of the region are either arid or semiarid (Benson & Clay, 1998). As a result of its frequent occurrence, drought has become a normal, recurring feature of the climate in SSA. Drought is generally defined as a period of abnormally dry weather long enough to cause severe hydrological imbalances (Field et al., 2012). Droughts are mainly caused by a lack of precipitation, with increased evapotranspiration-induced enhanced radiation, wind speed, and vapor pressure deficit contributing a great deal to the emergence of drought conditions (Field et al., 2012).

A large part of SSA is susceptible to drought, with the Sahel countries, the Horn of Africa, and southern Africa being severely affected because these areas are characterized by semiarid and subhumid climates, with a pronounced dry season in part of the year (Shiferaw et al., 2014). These arid and semiarid climates are intrinsically defined by alternating wet and dry periods on annual and decadal timescales. Moreover, human-induced factors such as deforestation, land degradation, and desertification result in reduced rainfall and soil moisture retention abilities, thus contributing to drought. Conversely, drought exacerbates environmental degradation through deforestation, livestock overgrazing, soil erosion wildfires, loss of biodiversity, and overextraction of groundwater resources, which became evident and pronounced in a number of SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries in 2015/2016 (CRED-MDAT, 2016). Droughts differ from other natural hazards in that they are slow-onset phenomena affecting wide spatial areas for periods of months or years. Between the years 1900 and 2016, over 309 recorded drought events affected over 400 million people, causing 860,000 deaths and economic losses of over US$5 billion (CRED-MDAT, 2016).

The reduced availability of potable water during droughts also tends to affect hygiene practices and negatively impact human health, increasing the prevalence of diseases such as cholera (UNISDR Regional Office for Africa, 2014). Furthermore, drought-induced food shortages adversely impact the nutritional status of affected populations, and as the UNISDR Regional Office for Africa (2014) indicates, where adverse political or market conditions exist, drought can lead to famine. With the unknown impacts of climate change, even more severe droughts are projected in SSA.

Most parts of SSA face risk of 10–40% probability of failed seasons during the major cropping calendar (Shiferaw et al., 2014). This is because the agricultural sector in SSA is particularly vulnerable to inter- and intra-annual climate variability, which contributes to the development and intensity of drought. As a result, in Africa, drought is accompanied by famine. Food insecurity and famine induced by drought accounted for 93% of the total number of people reportedly affected by disasters in 2011 (CRED-MDAT, 2012). As such, the impacts of drought in the SSA region are largely due to reliance on rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism.

Heat Waves

Increases in extreme daily temperatures have been reported over most regions of the globe since 1950 (Brown et al., 2008). Extreme heat waves in different parts of the world have caused monthly temperatures to exceed the local mean by 3 standard deviations over extended regions (Coumou & Robinson, 2013). Heat extremes are defined in the World Bank (2013) report as temperatures 3 and 5 standard deviations above the historical norm [3- and 5-sigma events). Coumou and Robinson (2013) argue that monthly mean temperatures beyond the 3-standard deviation threshold (i.e., 3-sigma events) during summertime can be considered as proxies for severe heat waves. The number of hot days, warm nights, and heat waves are all expected to increase through the 21st century across the globe (Steffen et al., 2014).

Unprecedented heat extremes are projected over an increasing percentage of land area in SSA as warming goes from 2 to 4 °C (World Bank, 2013). For instance, extreme temperature hazards are estimated to account for approximately 1% of total hazard occurrences in West Africa and Southern Africa (UNISDR Regional Office for Africa, 2014). Unusual and unprecedented heat extremes are projected to occur with greater frequency during summer months as global mean temperatures rise. The frequency of austral summer months (DJF) hotter than 5-sigma, characterized by unprecedented temperature increases over SSA, is predicted under the high-emission scenario (World Bank, 2013). However, Serdeczny et al. (2016) argue that the bulk of the high-impact heat extremes expected in sub-Saharan Africa under scenarios representing 2 and 4 °C warming by 2100 would be avoided under low-emission scenarios.

Heat waves have widespread impacts, ranging from direct impacts on health to damage to ecosystems, agriculture, and infrastructure (Steffen et al., 2014; World Bank, 2013). Most importantly, heat waves are associated with mortality (Egondi et al., 2015). Whereas it is difficult to quantify the number of lives lost due to heat waves in SSA, there is a high level of certainty that an increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves would increase the number of deaths due to hot weather. Lengthy exposure to high temperatures can bring about heat cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and death and compromise outdoor human activities (Smith et al., 2014). According to Serdeczny et al. (2016), extreme heat events can also have a direct impact on health by causing heat stress. This report is disconcerting given the already low level of nutrition of many rural populations in SSA (Lachat et al., 2013).

Studies in Ghana and Kenya (Azongo et al., 2012; Egondi et al., 2012), for instance, have provided the correlations between high ambient temperatures and increased all-cause mortality, with the young and the elderly particularly susceptible (Serdeczny et al., 2016). Egondi et al. (2015) argue that temperature variability is a key factor explaining differences in temperature-related mortalities, particularly for people with existing health problems. Many deaths that occur during heat waves are caused by cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory diseases.

In agriculture, high temperature extremes appear likely to affect yields of rice, wheat, maize, and other important crops, adversely affecting food security (World Bank, 2013). With SSA particularly dependent on agriculture for food, income, and employment, the region is likely to face high risks of food production under 2 °C warming (World Bank, 2013). According to Kula et al. (2013), changing temperatures, humidity, and precipitation are expected to disrupt agricultural production systems, reducing food production and leading to higher levels of malnutrition, which in turn can increase vulnerability to disease. Moreover, heat and drought would also result in severe losses of livestock and associated impacts on rural communities.

Tropical Cyclones

Tropical cyclones affecting SSA typically form in the Indian Ocean during the months of April to December (UNISDR Regional Office for Africa, 2014). The frequent combination of strong winds and heavy rainfall (storm surges) makes cyclones one of the most violent and destructive of all meteorological hazards, causing substantial damage to social and economic infrastructure and significant displacement of households and loss of life (UNISDR Regional Office for Africa, 2014). In SSA, the areas most frequently affected by cyclones are the Indian Ocean islands and the coastal areas of Eastern and Southern Africa. Tropical cyclones pose a significant threat to the coastal populations, infrastructure, and marine interests such as fishing and offshore activities. According to the World Bank (2016), approximately 12 tropical cyclones form in the Southwest Indian Ocean Basin every year, of which about 25% make landfall. As a result of the cyclone activity during the peak period of November to May, storms account for about 35% of damages and losses.


SSA is one of the most fire-prone regions of the world, with most burning occurring during the dry season (Gatebe et al., 2014). Fire flourishes because most of sub-Saharan Africa has the environment to sustain it (Goldammer & De Ronde, 2004). Wildfires are caused by several agents, cost huge socioeconomic losses, and are difficult to control (Chinamatira et al., 2016). The most common causes of wildfires are lightning and human activities, with the relative share of fires caused by human intervention rapidly increasing (Goldammer & De Ronde, 2004). Wildfires in this region are closely related to seasonal rainfall variability. Most of the wildfires occur during the dry season, and their intensity is usually elevated in periods of average to above-average rainfall when fuel load is also abundant (Dube, 2013). Most burning north of the equator is observed between November and February, when the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) is south of the equator (Gatebe et al., 2014). Similarly, south of the equator, most burning is observed between May and October during the dry period (Gatebe et al., 2014). South of the equator, approximately 168 million hectares burn annually; this is nearly 17% of a total land base of 1014 million hectares and accounts for 37% of the dry matter burned globally (Goldammer & De Ronde, 2004). Wildfires are projected to intensify with increasing climate variability and extreme events that are projected under climate change (Dube, 2013).

Although fires cause few deaths in SSA, valuable resources are lost, pasture is destroyed, and animals have to be moved or funds allocated to purchase feed (Mulugeta et al., 2007). As such, fire outbreaks have resulted in increased loss of agricultural produce, reduced food availability for both humans and animals, reduced growth rate of vegetation, and loss of equipment (Chinamatira et al., 2016). A mega fire in Ghanzi, Botswana, in 2008 burned 3.6 million hectares, with damage estimated at $US239,000, calculated to include loss of grazing and tourism-related resources (Dube, 2013). More than 1 million hectares of land were destroyed by wildfires, with damages amounting to more than USD$20,000 in Zimbabwe in 2012 (Chinamatira et al., 2016). The negative impacts of fires have fueled a predominantly negative view of fire at the expense of its positive role in ecological processes and land-use management and have resulted in large investments on firefighting (Dube, 2013). Gatebe et al. (2014), point out that in Africa, wildfires are a key player in terrestrial ecosystem disturbance. According to Goldammer and De Ronde (2004), fire is a natural and beneficial disturbance of vegetation structure and composition, and in nutrient recycling and distribution in most African ecosystems.

Geological Hazards

Geological hazards are less pronounced in SSA and occur predominantly in the Rift Valley (Word Bank, 2010). Disasters due to geological hazards are dwarfed in SSA by those of hydrometeorological origin, with earthquakes accounting for only 2%, and landslides and volcanic hazards for only 1% of the number of geological hazards occurring on the African continent (Mulugeta et al., 2007).

Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Volcanic Eruptions, Landslides, and Mudflows

SSA is largely characterized by a stable intraplate with low levels of seismic activities, and as such earthquakes are randomly distributed in space and time (Mulugeta et al., 2007). The only parts of SSA that do not display the characteristics of an intraplate region are the East African Rift System and the Cameroon Volcanic Line, where earthquakes are associated with active fault zones and volcanic activity. Therefore, countries along the Rift Valley, stretching from Eritrea to Mozambique, are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Along the Rift Valley and on Indian Ocean islands, several volcanoes are known to be active, including Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mount Karthala on the Comoros (World Bank, 2010). The Cameroon Volcanic Line experiences earthquakes tied to volcanoes or fault movements, which also trigger landslides. Human-induced mining-related earthquakes pose significant hazards to mineworkers and surrounding areas in the gold and platinum belts specifically in South Africa (Mulugeta et al., 2007).

All these areas where earthquakes occur in SSA have a relatively low population density and thus have negligible social and economic impacts. Similarly, the overall risk of volcanic eruptions in SSA is low as eruptions happen infrequently and impact sparsely populated areas. Whereas little research has been done on the risk associated with tsunamis in SSA (UNISDR Regional Office for Africa, 2014), recent studies show that low-lying countries along the coast of the Indian Ocean are susceptible to tsunamis (UNISDR, 2009). Cyclones and tropical storms are predominant in countries on the southeastern coast of the Indian Ocean, including Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Mozambique, and Zanzibar. The risk of landslides is great in countries with high rainfall, hilly terrains, soil erosion, and deforestation due to unsustainable land management (World Bank, 2010).

Biological Hazards

Biological hazards are organic substances that pose a threat to the health of humans and other living organisms, including pathogenic microorganisms, viruses, toxins, spores, fungi, and bioactive substances and biological vectors (Safe Work Australia, 2011). Biological hazards are used here with reference to the disease epidemics and insect infestations that characterize the SSA region.

Epidemics and Insect Infestations

Epidemics and insect infestations account for about 36% of all hazards in Africa (Mulugeta et al., 2007). Between 1970 and 2014, SSA was exposed to about 766 epidemic disasters, accounting for about 18% of the total disaster fatalities, second only to drought (World Bank, 2016). The most frequently reported epidemics in the region, which are concentrated along the equator, include cholera, meningitis, measles, viral hemorrhagic fever, plagues, and dengue (World Bank, 2016). Outbreaks of transmittable diseases, both food-, water- and vector-borne, in SSA occur mainly following extreme weather events such as flooding and droughts (Serdeczny et al., 2016). The extremes in climatic conditions affect the vector abundance and in the process increase the risk of outbreaks of various infectious diseases. Drought conditions, which can affect the availability and quality of water, have been linked to such illnesses as diarrhea, scabies, conjunctivitis, and trachoma (Patz et al., 2008).

In addition, the literature contains ample evidence of the relationship between excessive rainfall and accompanying flooding and the spread of disease by water-borne insect vectors. According to Anyamba et al. (2006), heavy rains create appropriate conditions for mosquito breeding and propagation. These mosquitos are the main transmitters of diseases such as malaria, dengue, and yellow fever. The risk of these diseases and other diseases such as cholera and Rift Valley fever is expected to rise as changes in temperature and precipitation patterns increase the extent of areas with conditions conducive to vectors and pathogens (World Bank, 2013). Most importantly, SSA’s already high rates of infectious disease can be expected to increase compared to a scenario without climate change (Serdeczny et al., 2016).

Pests such as locusts, crop-eating birds, and the African army worms cause great agricultural losses that contribute to poverty and famine (Mulugeta et al., 2007). Birds are specific pest species on cereal crops in Africa because they can migrate seasonally over long distances, occur in great numbers, and have a flexible diet, of which agricultural crops may be only a part (de Mey et al., 2012). However, great variability exists in the occurrence and extent of the damage for farmers, both in space and in time, because many factors influence bird damage (de Mey et al., 2012). Other arthropod pests of field crops such as stem borers are also problematic in the region (World Bank, 2012). In general, recurrent outbreaks of epidemics are a threat to social and economic development in SSA, as is the case with the rest of the African continent (World Bank, 2016).

Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction

Climate change is already a reality in Africa as the continent is experiencing prolonged and intensified droughts in eastern Africa; unprecedented floods in western Africa; depletion of rain forests in equatorial Africa; and an increase in ocean acidity around Africa’s southern coast (Besada & Sewankambo, 2009). It has been argued that the impacts of climate change are likely to be concentrated in low-income countries where poor populations already have compromised heath prospects, health systems are weak, and the capacity to adapt and address vulnerabilities is limited (Kula et al., 2013). According to the projections of the IPCC Report on Regional Climate (2007), average temperatures in Africa are predicted to increase by 1.5–3 °C by 2050, resulting in warming larger than all other parts of the world. African countries are more affected by climate change because of their reliance on agriculture as well as their lower financial, technical, and institutional capacity to adapt (Gemeda & Sima, 2015).

On the African continent, the highest regional burden of climate change is likely to be borne by SSA, with 34% of the global disability adjusted life years (DALYs) attributable to the effects of climate change in the region (Kula et al., 2013). SSA is confronted with a range of climate risks that could have far-reaching repercussions for the region ́s societies and economies (World Bank, 2013). The vulnerability of SSA to disasters is fueled by environmental degradation and climate change, among other things. Whereas SSA has historically been exposed to a wide variety of natural hazards, as reflected in the preceding discussion, the subcontinent has seen an increase in the frequency and severity of climatic hazards in recent decades (Engelbrecht et al., 2013; Ziervogel et al., 2008). According to Tschakert et al. (2010), drying of the late 1960s through the 1980s and the associated devastating famines in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, are among the most undisputed and largest manifestations of climate change recognized by the climate change community. The subcontinent’s hydrological and climatological hazards are mainly associated with shifting patterns in weather and climate, with climate variability being the key challenge (Manyena, 2016). The high degree of natural variability in climate is thought to make the region highly vulnerable to anthropogenically induced climate change, and as such the effect of anthropogenic forcing is increasing the frequency and/or amplitude of extreme climatological anomalies (Engelbrecht et al., 2013). The end result is projected be an increase in the occurrence of floods and droughts.

As a result of the increasing frequency of droughts and floods associated with climate change, agricultural production will decline, and the state of food insecurity and malnutrition will increase (Kumssa & Jones, 2010). The combination of dryness and extreme rainfall means rain-fed agriculture has become an increasingly risky venture, and drought-related food insecurity is likely to be a common, if episodic, feature of life in the future (Manyena, 2016). According to Kula et al. (2013), the changing temperatures, humidity, and precipitation are expected to disrupt agricultural production systems, reducing food production and leading to higher levels of malnutrition, which in turn can increase vulnerability to disease. Therefore, as with the rest of the African continent, the rain-fed agricultural systems on which the livelihoods of a large proportion of the region’s population currently depend are particularly vulnerable to climatic changes and variability (Serdeczny et al., 2016). According to the World Bank (2016) in Serdeczny et al. (2016), agricultural production in SSA is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with rain-fed agriculture accounting for approximately 96% of overall crop production.

The high levels of dependence on precipitation for the viability of SSA’s agriculture, in combination with observed crop sensitivities to maximum temperatures during the growing season (Asseng et al., 2011; Lobell et al., 2011), underscore the significant risks to the sector from climate change (Serdeczny et al., 2016). It is projected that, as a result of drought, arid and semiarid regions of Africa will expand by 5–8%, or 60–90 million hectares by 2100, resulting in agricultural losses of between 0.4 and 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) in Northern, Western, Central, and Southern Africa (IPCC, 2007). In terms of economic consequences, it is estimated that SSA will lose a total of US$26 million by 2060 due to climate change (Gemeda & Sima, 2015).

Natural Hazards Governance in SSA

A number of countries in SSA face significant governance challenges, including an institutional and policy framework to effectively respond to disasters and manage risk reduction measures (World Bank, 2010). This includes poor staffing and skills, weak analytical and implementation capacity, an unclear institutional landscape addressing disaster risk management (DRM) across various ministries and agencies, and weak partnerships with other agencies and academia, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector (World Bank, 2010). In most countries, DRM policy and legislation follow an ex-post responsive approach to disasters and are often not equipped with the right strategies and instruments for an ex-ante approach to risk reduction. Even well-equipped national DRM authorities often lack critical resources to invest in communications, early warning systems, or vehicles. Funding for DRM authorities at subnational and local levels is particularly limited, where remote district offices depend on funding and information provided in the capitals.

Regional Efforts for Natural Hazards Governance

The African Union Commission (AUC) and regional economic communities are making noticeable progress in advancing disaster risk reduction and disaster risk management, in terms of policies, strategies, and/or institutional mechanisms (UNECA, 2015). As such, the African continent has a range of instruments that guide the mainstreaming and implementation of disaster risk reduction at both continental and regional levels (Manyena et al., 2013). At the continental level, the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) forms the basis of the AU’s commitment to reducing disaster risk and promoting the resilience of African nations. Drawing from the requirements of the Constitutive Act, the AU/The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) established the African Working Group on disaster risk reduction, with the mandate to facilitate mainstreaming or integration of disaster risk reduction in all phases of development. Subsequently, the African Regional Strategy for DRR was developed in 2004 (UNISDR, 2014).

Importantly, the objectives of the strategy are to increase political commitment to disaster risk reduction; improve identification and assessment of disaster risks; enhance knowledge management for disaster risk reduction; increase public awareness of disaster risk reduction; improve governance of disaster risk reduction; and integrate disaster risk reduction in emergency management and response (UNISDR, 2014). Following broad consultations with national, regional, and global stakeholders, the Programme of Action for the Implementation of the Africa Regional Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, together with the Guidelines for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Assessment into Development, were developed in 2005 (UNECA, 2015). The Yaoundé Declaration on the Implementation of the Sendai Framework in Africa (2015) called for states to include and integrate disaster risk reduction in their economic development policies and programs as the most important tool for resilience, sustainability, and human and capital development. All in all, measures and mechanisms for implementation of disaster risk reduction and drought in particular have been established throughout the AU.

However, planning, development, and implementation of the measures vary at the subregional level, owing in part to the complex impacts of disaster in time and space and in part to a variety of additional factors such as economic, geographical, political will, and social diversity across the continent (UNISDR Regional Office for Africa, 2014). The Regional Economic Communities (RECs), however, are helping to build an enabling environment to better address risk in the development sectors of member countries. The AU recognizes eight RECs, five of which are in SSA and are actively involved in disaster risk reduction and management. These include the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East Africa Community (EAC), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) all have developed disaster risk management or disaster management policies or strategies (UNECA, 2015).

These RECs play an important role in interpreting the strategy for their regions and facilitating their implementation at the national level. The IGAD and SADC regions developed disaster risk management policies or strategies in early 2000. The ECOWAS policy was adopted in 2006, and this was followed by the development of an action plan to implement the policy. In East Africa, the EAC developed the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Strategy (2012–2016) in 2012. In 2013, the EAC passed a Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Law. This bill provides a legal framework for intervention and assistance for people affected by climate change and natural hazard-related disasters, and for protection of the natural environment through integration of comprehensive disaster risk reduction and disaster risk reduction practices in the community (EAC, 2013).

ECCAS, in cooperation with UNISDR and other partners, is mainstreaming disaster risk reduction /climate change adaptation (CCA) into ECCAS development programs. In 2010, ECCAS endorsed the International Labour Organization (ILO) Yaoundé Tripartite Declaration Action Plan for 2012–2016, which focuses on preparedness and provides mechanisms for early warning and response systems. In 2012, the regional body adopted a regional strategy for risk reduction, disaster management, and CCA; an implementation framework for the regional strategy; and a declaration expressing strong political commitment (UNISDR Regional Office for Africa, 2014).

All of these policy and/or strategic frameworks derive their mandates from the Constitutive Act of the AUC, with support from UNISDR. More importantly, most of the policies and strategies are regularly revised to accommodate new developments such as climate change, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030), and the Sustainable Development Goals. Furthermore, through 2016, six Regional Platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction were also organized, bringing together governments, NGOs, INGOs, academia, and other stakeholders. These platforms have contributed to a joint focus and common approach (supported by a number of regional centers of excellence1) toward natural hazard management in the region. It should be noted, however, that the activities presented here are not all-inclusive, but rather are meant to illustrate the major efforts and progress in addressing natural hazards and the impending disaster in SSA.

National and Local Governance of Natural Hazards in SSA

“Visible in times of crises, risk governance is rarely seen as part of everyday public or private functions such as planning, social welfare, investments or fiscal responsibilities” (Gall, Cutter, & Nguyen, 2014, p. 4). Unfortunately, such is the case in most of SSA. Whereas international organizations and frameworks are important in natural hazard management, the state still holds ultimate responsibility due to its considerable political power and legal mandates to protect its citizens (van Niekerk, 2015; Jones et al., 2014). Government has traditionally been seen as the locus for defining and orchestrating collective goals and actions within society. As such, the state is the main and most powerful actor in reducing the risk of disaster emanating from both climate change and other natural hazards, owing to its coercive power and its capacities for institution building and enforcement (Ahrens, 2011). States have the moral and legal duty to protect their citizens, thus making natural hazard management a governmental responsibility, albeit the involvement of private-sector and civil society organizations is important (Kellet & Mitchell, 2014; Wilkinson, 2012).

In most SSA countries, governments have developed national disaster risk management systems, frameworks, policies, and specialized organizations to protect their citizens from harm caused by natural hazards (Wilkinson, 2012). Unfortunately, as Manyena et al. (2013) observe, most of the systems, frameworks, legislation, and policies are still response and emergency based. However, as Van Niekerk (2015) notes, there have been some notable successes in natural hazard management in many African states through policy and legislative reforms.

For instance, despite the precarious situation in which Burundi finds itself after years of conflict and civil strife, it has made progress in improving overall natural hazard governance (International Monetary Fund, 2009) and disaster risk reduction since 2004 (Republic of Burundi, 2004). Since 2010, the government has been focusing on decentralizing disaster risk reduction and natural hazard management to their provincial government sphere. Burundi implemented a national disaster risk reduction platform and developed a national disaster risk reduction policy that emphasizes natural hazard management as one of its pillars of disaster risk reduction (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2011; Republic of Burundi, 2011; Youth Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2013). In terms of natural hazard management, Burundi has ratified a number of conventions relating to achieving the objectives of the Hyogo Framework for Action and now the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Some of these conventions include the RAMSAR convention for the protection of wetlands, the Vienna convention for the protection of the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol for the reduction of substances that deplete the ozone layer, and the Convention on Desertification (Republic of Burundi, 2004, 2007). With the assistance of a number of INGOs and NGOs, Burundi has a working early warning system for food security in place. Attention to integrating natural hazard management and development has also occurred at the communal level, though to a fairly limited degree (Republic of Burundi, 2009; Youth Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2013). Other successes include the development of some contingency plans at the provincial level for natural hazard occurrence. Although these plans are oriented toward disaster response, they provide a crucial step toward advocating for disaster risk reduction interventions and networking of relevant role players.

Similarly, Kenya has undergone some significant policy and legislative reforms pertaining to disaster risk reduction. These reforms are evident in the publication of its new policy on disaster management in 2009 (Kenya, 2009), as well as in it new constitution (Kenya, 2010). Kenya followed a rigorous consulting process in developing its disaster management policy, and the actors involved included members of academia, INGOs, NGOs, and research institutes. Structures have been put in place at the national level through the establishment of a national platform for disaster risk reduction. The Kenyan government has committed to disaster risk reduction and natural hazard management through budget allocations at all levels of government (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2011), although some observers believe it is still limited in terms of its effectiveness (Action for Sustainable Change, 2013). Furthermore, the 2010 constitution, as well as the disaster management policy enshrines the decentralization of disaster risk reduction to the county level (see Schedule 4, Part 2). Kenya also recognizes the importance of integrating natural hazard management into development and poverty reduction activities (International Monetary Fund, 2005).

Nigeria, like many SSA countries, began to engage in disaster risk reduction legislative reform in the early 2000s. Nigeria was one of the early adopters of disaster risk reduction in Africa, which is shown through political commitment and the establishment of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in 1999. Some progress in development/disaster risk reduction and natural hazard management integration is evident (van Niekerk, 2015). Nigeria implemented a number of grassroots awareness campaigns utilizing local knowledge for natural hazard management and mitigation purposes (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2011). In 2010, the Nigerian government included disaster risk reduction in its national development plan. It has good progress in supporting subnational (state)-level disaster risk reduction and natural hazard management integration by facilitating the establishment of 22 state emergency management agencies. Furthermore, Nigeria allocates 1% of its national budget to mitigating ecological problems.

Mozambique has been the SSA country most affected by floods, cyclones, and droughts in the past 15 years (Mozambique, 2011). Coming out of years of civil conflict, Mozambique made significant progress in the mitigation and prevention of natural hazards. Legislative reforms, new disaster risk reduction structures, early warning systems, decentralization, and capacity development in natural hazard management have been implemented (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2011). Mozambique was one of the first SADC countries to formalize its disaster risk reduction structures at national and local levels through the Instituto Nacional de Gestão de Calamidades (INGC), or National Institute for Disaster Management (Abreu, 2013). In terms of integrated planning for natural hazard management, the Mozambique government has included disaster risk reduction/development integration in its five-year government plan (2010–2014). A Master Plan for Disaster Prevention and Mitigation has been in place since 2006 and is updated on a regular basis. Furthermore, natural hazard management and disaster risk reduction are addressed in the government’s National Adaptation Programme for Action (NAPA) (Government of Mozambique, 2007).

Swaziland, in contrast, is just in the process of legislative reform, linked to decentralized implementation of natural hazard management. Disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation integration into policies and legislation is occurring slowly, although in 2005 it had already passed a national Disaster Risk Reduction Action Plan and the Disaster Management Act in 2006. Progress in policy implementation of natural hazard management measures has been dismally slow (van Niekerk, 2015). The country has also focused on incorporating disaster risk reduction and natural hazard management into school awareness campaigns. The success and impact of these campaigns have not been fully measured yet. Local resilience projects, including natural hazard management, have been implemented and strengthened. However, the absence of a national disaster risk reduction platform in Swaziland is one of its major challenges, hindering natural hazard management.

South Africa, like Nigeria, achieved early policy and legislation reform starting in 1998 with the White Paper on Disaster Management (South Africa, 1998a, 1998b). This document led to the Disaster Management Act of 2002 (South Africa, 2003), followed by the National Disaster Management Policy Framework in 2005 (South Africa Government Gazette, 2005). A decentralized approach to disaster risk reduction and the legislative requirement of disaster risk reduction and development integration have occurred through a number of policies and acts (South Africa, 1983, 1998a, 1998b, 2000; van Niekerk, 2014). One of the major achievements in South Africa has been the continued and direct involvement of civil society in natural hazard management and disaster risk reduction (Pelling & Holloway, 2006). The Disaster Management Act and National Policy Framework is widely cited as one of the best examples of disaster risk reduction legislative reform globally (Botha et al., 2011; Pelling & Holloway, 2006; van Niekerk, 2014). Decentralized disaster risk reduction and the incorporation of development, natural hazard management, and disaster risk reduction are enforced by numerous laws (South Africa, 1983, 1998a, 1998b, 1999, 2004). Research, training, and education in natural hazard management remain high priorities on the agenda, and specialized working groups of the national disaster risk reduction platform (called the National Disaster Management Advisory Forum) regularly inform policy decisions and practical implementation. In addition, various sector-specific role players (such as Agriculture, Water Affairs, and Health) are responsible for the coordination of natural hazard management within their specific domain of expertise.

A number of environmental and human-induced hazards affect Angola’s rich natural resources. These include deforestation, reduction in biodiversity, floods, burning of woodlands, high demand for fuel wood, increasing scarcity of water resources, water pollution, soil erosion, desertification, possible offshore oil pollution, and global climate change (Angola & UNDP, 2009). Like most SSA countries, Angola has been engaging in development programs working with different internal and external stakeholders aimed at incorporating natural hazard management. Disaster risk reduction and management function in Angola is implemented under the coordination of the National Service for Civil Protection (NSCP), which is under the Interior minister. At the national level, the National Commission for Civil Protection (NCPC) falls under the office of the president and coordinates the SNPC (UNDP, 2009, p. 13). From a cross-border collaboration front in natural hazard management, the UNISDR (2010, p. 9) reported that plans were underway in collaboration with Namibia to conduct a joint study on natural hazards and disaster risks in the basin of the Cunene River, which serves as a boundary between the two countries. From a multilateral perspective, it is critical to note that the USAID-funded Zambezi River Basin initiative covers Angola as part of the basin. These activities demonstrate the involvement of Angola in cross-border and regional efforts for natural hazard management.

Civil Society Organization and the Private Sector in Natural Hazard Governance in SSA

Natural hazard management using top-down government and institutional interventions alone are often insufficient as they tend to have a faulty understanding of community dynamics, perceptions, and needs, and ignore the potential of local knowledge and capacities (UNISDR, 2006). Until now, the debates surrounding natural hazards governance in SSA have concentrated mainly on regional efforts, involvement of the national government, and international support. Less attention has been paid to the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders, including civil society organizations (CSOs), the private sector, and the general public at the local level (Botha & Van Niekerk, 2013).

In most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, with neither the administrative capacity nor the funding to build public safety nets against hazards, households must find ways to reduce vulnerability and improve living standards through informal channels (Morduch, 1999). It has been argued that the resilience of local communities to disasters in SSA lies in their capacity to prevent, prepare for, and respond to natural hazards (UNISDR, 2006). Community-based approaches offer viable solutions for managing and reducing risks and ensuring sustainable development. In this regard, local people and local organizations in SSA are important actors in reducing the risk of disasters and in assisting in the disaster response. This is so because many members of local communities also represent the greatest potential source of local knowledge of hazardous conditions and are the repositories of traditional coping mechanisms suited to their individual environment (UNISDR, 2006).

In SSA, civil society organizations are important in terms of responding to the various needs of affected people at the grassroots level (Ishiwatari, 2013). The main benefit of civil society organizations operating at the grassroots level is that they are able to partner with communities and other community organizations (UNISDR, 2006). Their ability to mobilize people and their understanding of people’s concerns enable civil society organizations to better articulate problems encountered by the people (Behera, 2002). By virtue of operating at the grassroots level, civil society organizations in SSA respond better to people’s priorities and can build on local capacities in implementing disaster risk reduction measures. Thus, civil society and community-based organizations in SSA are able to develop initiatives to respond to disasters and to help reduce the disaster risk (Lal et al., 2012).

A strong civil society can play a critical role in creating social demand for disaster risk reduction by ensuring political responsibility and accountability mainly at the local level (UNISDR, 2010). As Ghaus-Pasha (2005) indicates, civil society organizations in the developing world further good governance by providing policy analysis and advocacy, regulating and monitoring state performance and the actions and behavior of public officials, building social capital, and enabling citizens to identify and articulate their values, beliefs, civic norms, and democratic practices.

Whereas the importance of the private sector in risk reduction has been recognized and acknowledged for several years (Izumi & Shaw, 2015), the private sector in SSA has largely been involved in the response and relief phases of disaster risk management (Izumi & Shaw, 2015; Lal et al., 2012; Roeth, 2009). This is because their roles in response and relief are much clearer than the business case for risk reduction, which is still unclear, thus hampering their engagement (Lal et al., 2012). The primary incentive for private-sector involvement in disaster risk reduction in SSA is to ensure business continuity during and after disasters and help prepare for a wide range of disruptions before they happen (Izumi & Shaw, 2015). Most importantly, the intentions of business involvement in disaster risk reduction should not only be to minimize disaster risk to business but also to reduce the vulnerabilities of communities in which they operate or where their goods and services are consumed (Roeth, 2009). Moreover, the private sector’s major contributions to disaster risk management must be in the form of resources, expertise, and capacities (Izumi & Shaw, 2015).

International Support for Natural Hazard Governance in SSA

Some of the most significant achievements in natural hazard management in the SSA region have been driven by, and made possible by, the involvement of international organizations. Most notably, a number of UN organizations have been instrumental in creating a policy development space that allows constructive engagement between various role players. The important role which the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has played on the continent is undeniable. Through continued involvement with all African states since the declaration of the Hyogo Framework for Action in 2005, the UNISDR in Africa has engaged with numerous governments and assisted in establishing multisector national coordinating structures, or the so-called National Disaster Risk Reduction Platforms. In support of these national platforms, other UN agencies like the UNDP have been instrumental in facilitating the development of policy at the national level. Uganda and Namibia are good examples of areas where the UNDP has supported the legislative and policy development process. Similarly, other organizations working on related and integrated fields such as food security (FAO, 2015b) and climate change adaptation Global Environment Facility(GEF) have made notable impacts on natural hazard governance in SSA. The Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction of the World Bank (GFDRR, 2010) has made major investments in countries such as Malawi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Madagascar toward disaster risk reduction integration and governance issues. Equally important is the work undertaken by the international humanitarian sector. In SSA, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and Red Crescent needs special mention. The IFRC through its Disaster Law Program (IFRC& UNDP, 2015) has supported disaster risk reduction and recovery policy and law development in a number of African states through technical support, capacity development, advocacy, dissemination, and research. A number of guiding documents and templates were developed to assist countries starting from a position of naught to quickly and easily draft national policies and laws. However, as the World Bank reports (World Bank, 2016), the management of natural hazards goes beyond a single stand-alone entity. Most of the contemporary disaster risk reduction laws create a functional unit in government for disaster risk reduction. In some instances, the existence of such a dedicated unit creates the impression in other sectors that it has no direct responsibility in natural hazard management. This is reported in the research by Botha et al. (2011). Thus, the challenge in SSA is to ensure the continued involvement of multisectoral role players in disaster risk reduction.


Managing the most prominent natural hazards in SSA that require governance remains the ethical responsibility of governments. Each hazard type requires a different set of policy instruments and level of application. To meet their obligations to their citizens, most SSA countries have committed to international agreements on disaster risk reduction, which governs natural hazard management to a large degree. A number of new generation policies and legislative acts have been passed since the early 2000s. However, implementation and enforcement remain a challenge. Although policies have been developed for natural hazard management at the national level, they have not been sufficiently implemented and their effectiveness is rarely felt at the local level. Cross-border management of natural hazards also does not happen spontaneously, with many countries relying on the international community for help in this regard. To effectively address multiple hazard issues, the convergence and integration of development, climate change adaptation, ecosystem management, and natural hazard management must be sought to ensure effectiveness and efficiency in disaster risk governance. It remains imperative for governments to seek horizontal integration of natural hazard management between sectors, and also to form partnerships with civil society and the private sector. Multi-hazard early warning systems must be developed for the various natural hazards in the SSA region which will inform decision making.

What remains is for RECs to find common ground in the management of natural hazards across the various subregions of SSA. Although a common approach in its policy statements is evident, standardized practices are not so common and should be sought. Furthermore, natural hazard management hinges on accurate and good communication with those most at risk. Natural hazard and vulnerability mapping is essential for good management, and in this regard the countries of SSA must also aim to work together. Given all of these considerations, progress can only be achieved through skilled staff and individuals. Significant emphasis must therefore be placed on capacity development for natural hazard management.


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  • 1. For instance, the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre in Kenya; the SADC Climate Services Centre in Botswana, the African Centre for Disaster Studies in South Africa, Africa Risk Capacity, the Periperi U Network, the Technical Centre for Disaster Risk Management, Sustainability and Urban Resilience (DiMSUR) in Mozambique, to mention but a few.