Experts call for utilization of geohazard data to minimize impact of natural disasters

By Bester KAYAYE

Geological and Environmental Experts say the devastating impact of Tropical Cyclone Freddy on Malawi has exposed gaps in the process of disaster preparedness which depicts lack of coordination between Government Ministries, Departments, and Agencies in sharing and utilizing available geohazard data in order to cushion the impact of natural disasters on livelihoods.

Tropical Cyclone Freddy which has devastated parts of Southern Africa including Southern Malawi causing heavy rains, floods and mudslides, has killed around 500 people in Malawi, with  around 350 missing, over 900 injured and 350-thousand displaced, with casualty figures high in the commercial capital, Blantyre.

Freddy, considered one of the strongest cyclones recorded in the southern hemisphere, is also considered to be the longest-lasting tropical cyclone, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Seasoned Geologist Ignatius Kamwanje faulted the government, in an interview with Mining and Trade Review, for not utilizing geohazard preparedness data prior to such disasters occurring, observing that government officials have shown lack of seriousness in their appreciation of geological information or in engaging technical experts to create awareness and sensitize the population living in disaster-prone areas.

He said: “There is available data on geohazard preparedness.  The government does not seem to utilise the data possibly due to lack of seriousness in appreciating geological information. The other reason could be unwillingness to engage technical experts in creating awareness and sensitizing the population that inhabited these disaster prone areas that are illegally settled.”

“The government through the City, District and Town councils also lacks seriousness in enforcement of land laws and regulations as a result there is laxity.”

Kamwanje explained that tactical utilization of geological data such as geohazard maps can prevent most of the catastrophes that occur due to uncertain climate patterns, defining areas as a no-go zone for settlements.

He said: “Geological data such as geohazard maps help to define a delineated area as a no go zone for settlements.  The data assist in preventing catastrophes that may come due to natural disasters like the recent cyclones.”

“In this case geological maps provide important information in helping people to understand the risks of natural hazards and how to mitigate them.”

Kamwanje also suggested that ideal Environmental Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs) can be another integral tool in disaster preparedness for both the government and the private sector, including mining companies, as they help identify and mitigate environmental risks posed by mining activities.

“The role of ESIA in Disaster Preparedness for mining operations is that it tries to inform mining companies on mitigating risks that may come due to environmental, social and other man made induced factors, Therefore government and mining firms can use ESIA as a tool in disaster preparedness in the sense that it guides and facilitates decision making and planning for mining.”

“It also ensures cooperation and transparency between the companies and communities on local content and on any information related to disasters and the risks plus mitigation measures that can be applied during project implementation thereby acting as a safety tool.”

He then called for a mutual working relationship between the Geological Survey Department (GSD) and the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DODMA) to consolidate information pertaining to natural disasters.

“The gap that exists between GSD and DODMA can be overcome by engaging each other on the important aspects in sharing information and data. The gap can also be overcome by carrying out joint projects as partners for easy understanding of each other’s field to consolidate and compliment information for public consumption.”

Gloria Kamoto, Programs Manager of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), agreed with Kamwanje on the role of ESIAs as a tool that government and mining firms can utilize to prepare for natural disasters.

She pointed out that extractive sector operations contribute to climate change, which also affects their operations.

Kamoto said: “There is a very interesting relationship between climate change and extractive sector in the sense that extractive sector is regarded as one of the contributors to climate change while the later also affects operations of the former, therefore they are actually two sides of a same coin.”

“We have to appreciate that the country is undergoing serious climate change transitions as it is only a few years ago we documented an incident at Kayelekera mine.  At the time it was undergoing maintenance, there was an incident whereby one of their dams overflowed as Karonga had received a huge amount of rainfall which the district has never registered before so even if they had done their ESIA, they could not have accounted for such incident.”

“This only raises alarm on how players in the extractive sector prepare themselves for such uncertainties exacerbated by climatic change. It is not a matter of preparing for floods only but any other climate influenced disasters such as drought. Mining companies must account and plan how they are to execute their operations in instances of drought as most of their work requires significant amounts of water. So these are things that we should all think about critically.”

Kamoto said a watertight ESIA is a good starting point for projects as the country already has set policies and laws in place which basically cover geographical and geothermal aspects of an area where mining will take place as well as the impact the extractive works will bring about in the specified areas.

She explained that one aspect that has been brought into account with the current developments is the element of climate resilience of the area hence it is important to understand the climate instances of the area including past climate records of the area for proper decision making and sustainable planning.”

Kamoto said: “ESIA does not only look at the number of trees the company is to cut down or if there are any animals in the area, but it is such a dynamic tool and it is constantly changing to respond to the needs of communities.”

“That is why we have seen transition from just EIA to ESIAs considering the fact that the impact is not only exerted towards the environment but the social setup of communities living in the given area is always affected,” she said.

She advised mining companies to start developing mechanisms that empower them to be more responsive to climate shocks in an area there are operating.

Kamoto also emphasized the need to expedite efforts aimed at formalizing Artisanal Small scale Miners (ASMs) across the country saying some significant climate change impacts are also brought about by many unregulated miners who usually operate with little or no technical know-how.

She said: “Some research works that have been done point to some extent that ASMs also exacerbate the climate change impacts because their mining exercise is mostly done without consideration of the environment. For example if they are clearing an area with trees it is very unlikely that they will replace the trees, they also use rivers which leads to siltation hence flooding.”

“As CEPA we have been advocating for environmental management in ASMs operations through the Sustainable Artisanal Mining Applied for Livelihoods Advancement (SAMALA) project we are implementing in Balaka and Chikwawa, Through the project we also trained the ASMs in disaster response by, among other things, ensuring that they understand weather information either from Meteorological Department which is coming in from different sources and other informal methods of detecting disasters.”

Blantyre City lost many lives due to landslides that occurred in Soche Hill which used to host a quarry mine.

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