The past month, I travelled the length and breadth of this dispersed country on official engagement, from Matsiloje to Middlepits, the Okavango region and all over. Amazingly, what used to be a barren Botswana has suddenly resembled the Amazon forest. Huge vegetation has sprung everywhere. Villages are submerged under overgrown vegetation and the Kalahari Desert has become forested.
In the last few years, Botswana has become synonymous with cruel droughts and the present state of vegetation comes as an unexpected gift and surprise welcome. The natural environment is buzzing with fresh life and, by extension, people portray happy and excited faces.
People’s hopes for a better life have been restored.
Yet it is known that even when the country is barren and experiencing the worst drought conditions in living memory, bush or veldfires have always remained part of our desert life.
Such fires have often resulted in massive destruction of flora and fauna and in some cases loss of human life has been recorded.
The country’s response to this devastation has always, unfortunately, remained reactive. Often the government and, in particular, the National Disaster Management Office inexplicably waits for disaster to strike before waking up from their slumber. And when they so awaken, they resort to insult, bullying tactics and abuse targeted at poor people who augment their meager food rations through illegal hunting and foraging. They shout at poor villagers and hapless extension officers to put their lives at risk by extinguishing the raging fires while they (the authorities) enjoy the comforts of their executive offices. The shouting and insults are intended to divert public attention away from those who bear immediate responsibility, the National Disaster Management Office, through their indecision and incompetence. This unfair accusation hurts, offends and to a larger degree alienates communities from their government.
The unfair accusations create imaginary enemies and subsequent mistrust. In protest to this unfair accusation, community members opt to stay home as their only recourse. When asked to put off fires, they unfairly but understandably demand to be paid subsistence allowances as is done with public officers. The winner of this stand off is none other than the bushfires.
Admittedly, Botswana’s response to bushfires has always been under-resourced and half-hearted. In any case, the overall level of our readiness for emergencies of every kind and post disaster rehabilitation is mediocre, un-spirited and essentially thoughtless.
Frankly, our approach to disaster management is focused on merely treating symptoms of bushfire rather than addressing the causes of our vulnerability to bushfires. When the world is gradually shifting from disaster response to a more proactive approach to disaster management which encourages pre-disaster and risk reduction and post disaster recovery, Botswana is still stuck to the past ways of doing things. Instead of investing on prevention and mitigation of bushfires most significantly because our response to such challenges are inadequate and uncoordinated, the National Disaster Management Office still prefers to wait for fire outbreak and then attempt to extinguish the fires often in the most medieval way, using a few villagers rounded up at Chibuku depots and other drinking holes.
The winter season has already descended on us and the vegetation is drying up and becoming readily combustible. Yet the relevant authorities, the people hired and paid among others to formulate bushfire management strategies and mobilize the nation in relation to all aspect of disaster prevention and readiness to combat bushfires, see nothing alarming or perhaps are as usual waiting for the first fire outbreak before they spring into panic action. Conditions for fire outbreaks are sufficient and the relevant authorities should have long commenced educating, conscientizing and mobilizing communities about possibilities for fire outbreaks. They should have long started mapping high risk areas and assist communities in these areas to build firebreaks and inform them about equipment and technology available for preventing and fighting bushfires.
It is a pity that people deemed responsible and dependable have to wait to be told what to do all the time.
They appear to be deprived of creative minds and are unable to forecast and plan ahead. But of course being an appendage of the Office of the President where centralization of power is the immediate and overriding concern, not much should be expected from them. The Office of the President has become unwieldy and departments under its authority have likewise become clumsy, arrogant, self-opinionated and ultimately inept. The best that they do is to brag about their power in a way that scares their critics and conceals their incompetence. They are consumed by their self-importance and therefore profess to associate themselves with important persons only. Such is the extent of the rot evidenced at the National Disaster Management Office. In essence its leadership is lethargic, careless, idle, negligent and frighteningly disorganized. These are the people who continue to give the civil service a bad image and a scandalous name.
On the basis of this argument, the National Disaster Management Office should forthwith start addressing communities and empowering local disaster management structures to be ready to combat bushfires. In the past, the country has experienced devastating fires at a time when it was relatively barren which means that we must be prepared for the worst this time because there is overgrown vegetation everywhere. It is saddening that the relevant people seem not to care.
The disaster office should mobilize stakeholders such as the Botswana Police, The Botswana Defense Force and so forth so that they remain alert and ready to lend their hi-tech equipments in extreme cases. Political leaders should also lend a helping hand and the state President should also take the initiative and present an impassioned plea for all to prevent bushfires and help extinguish them if they break out. In case the National Disaster Management Office has limited human capacity to undertake the task, it is advisable they engage private parties (while they carry on with their beloved game of un-interrupted snoozing) to do the job so that the message is effectively delivered to the people before disaster of unprecedented magnitude strike.
If the National Disaster Management Office does not commence this initiative in the next few weeks, it will be advisable for NGOs to circumvent this high level institution and initiate preventive measures before our tortoises and snakes are burned alive.