Disaster Response:How prepared are we? (1)

The havoc created by the recent disaster in some part of Accra

The havoc created by the recent disaster in some part of Accra

This is what the SOVEREIGN LORD says: “Disaster! An unheard of disaster is coming. The end has come! It has roused itself against you. It has come! Doom has come upon you – you who dwell in the land. The time has come, the day is near: there is panic, not joy, upon the mountains” (Ezekiel 7:5-7)

Not long ago Ghanaians had a rude shock when the building housing the Achimota branch of the supermarket chain, Melcom, suddenly collapsed killing and injuring many shoppers and staff.

The rescue operations became so difficult that Israel had to bring in some experts to complement the efforts of the Ghanaian security services and officials from the National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO).

As if the Melcom disaster and the other disasters including the perennial floods are not enough, there have recently been many other reported cases of collapsed buildings in other parts of the country. The year ending in December 2012 up to today has seen an unprecedented and clueless fire outbreaks in Ghana, especially in major markets across the length and breadth of the country.

This compelled President Excellency John Dramani Mahama to seek outside intervention from the United States of America. This, however, did not go down with a cross section of the Ghanaian society who were of the view that there was enough local capacity for that task.

My question is: In the midst of all these disasters what has been the response strategy of the nation? By the National Disaster Management Organization Act, 1996 (Act 517), a National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO) was established. Section 2 of Act 517 deals with the Object and Functions of NADMO as follows:

  1. The object of the organization is to manage disasters and similar emergencies in the country.
  2. For the purposes of subsection (1) the Organization shall:
  3. prepare national disaster plans for preventing and mitigating the consequences of disasters;
  4. monitor, evaluate and update natural disaster plans;
  5. ensure the establishment of adequate facilities, technical training and the institution of educational programmes to provide public awareness, warning systems and general preparedness for its staff and the general public;
  6. ensure that there are appropriate and adequate facilities for the provision of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction after the disaster;
  7. co-ordinate local and international support for disaster, or emergency control relief services and reconstruction; and
  8. perform any other functions that are incidental to its functions.

Section 4 of the Act deals with the governing body, which according to Section (4) (1) shall be the National Security Council.

The question however is how effective has our NADMO been in the realization of its object and functions?

According to Markku Niskala, Secretary General of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “When the call goes out for help after a major disaster, the world’s attention is rightly focussed on the humanitarian needs of affected persons and on the effort to put food, medicines and other critical items quickly within reach. The regulatory aspects of such relief operations hardly come to the limelight though they can be critical”.

It is for this reason that it is necessary to have a look at our Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (DRL) visa–a-vis the Disaster Management Law.

In the past few decades, many countries have improved in their ability to mitigate and respond to the effects of disasters. However, some catastrophic events such as the current spate of fire outbreaks in our country, the perennial flooding of some of the communities as well as disasters in our mining communities, just to mention a few, are still overwhelming domestic capacities.

“This is unfortunately likely to continue in the near future, in the light of the increasing severity of meteorological events, caused by global warming, sheer negligence and carelessness and at times out of sheer wickedness”, According to Law and legal Issue in International Disaster Response.

Hurricane Katrina, the Catastrophic Chernobyl disaster that occurred on 20th April 1996 in Ukraine, the April 2011 Japanese earthquake leading to the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, our own recent spate of fire outbreaks, have shown that no state can reasonably consider itself immune from occasional need for international assistance.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that inspite of the National Disaster Management Organization Act 1996, Act 517, Ghana is not very adequately prepared for such disasters. According to Sec. 2 (1), NADMO is to manage disasters and similar emergencies and to prepare national disaster plans for preventing and mitigating the consequences of disasters.

They are also enjoined by the law to monitor, evaluate and update natural disaster plans (Section 2 (a & b). It is wondered how compliant NADMO and its oversight body, the National Security Council have been in this respect.

Where are the national disaster plans of Ghana and how often are these plans being evaluated and updated in accordance with the law?

NADMO, according to Section 2(2) (c) of Act 517 is the body responsible for ensuring the establishment of adequate facilities, technical training and institution of educational programmes to provide public awareness, warning systems and general preparedness for its staff and the general public.

How effective has it been in this statutory duty? How many public awareness programmes has NADMO undertaken? How many technical training and educational programmes have been undertaken in this country?

In a country with over fifty percent youth, it is expected that NADMO would have by now mobilised and trained the youth right from the basic schools to the tertiary level in disaster prevention, disaster response and relief management. NADMO could easily collaborate with the National Service Scheme and the Youth Fellowships in our churches in this direction.

The Tampere Convention 1998, Article 1 states “Disaster means a serious disruption of the functioning of society, posing a significant, widespread threat to human life, health, property or the environment, whether caused by accident, nature or human activity, and whether developing suddenly or as the result of complex long-term processes”.

If the above defines what a disaster is then we as a nation should seriously re-think our disaster response, disaster prevention, disaster relief and management laws.

How are our national laws generally prepared to handle issues incidental to the receipt of international disaster relief and recovery assistance, for example?

What are our regulatory regimes relating to international disaster response vis-a-vis rules related to purely domestic activities? What are our rules for relief and recovery vis-a-vis risk reduction?

Whilst no central treaty regime has been created for international disaster response, international law has not been silent on the topic. International law on disaster has developed in many sectors as well as in many resolutions, declarations, codes, guidelines etc that are not formally binding.

However, as a signatory to many of these “soft laws”, it is about time we as a nation seriously took a critical look at them and adopted most of them into our national disaster management.

A lot of complex legal and administrative issues rear their ugly heads in most disaster response and relief issues and the absence of regulation in such situations can create a disaster response that is not co-ordinated, wasteful and without due consideration to the beneficiaries and domestic actors.

As observed by the Tadaku Kone, President of IFRC “Nature alone does not cause disaster, disasters result when natural events touch the lives of vulnerable people”. It is in the light of the above observation that our lacklustre attitude to disaster management should cease.

Good laws reduce the vulnerability by providing national disaster management bodies like NADMO, Ghana Red Cross Society and its volunteers and other humanitarian actors, the space and the access required to do their job well.

It is about time the Ghana government came out with strategies for developing effective and comprehensive disaster legislation and for improving enforcement of key existing laws such as the Towns Act, 1892, CAP 86, Town and Country Planning Act, 1945, CAP 84, the Local Government Act, 1993 (Act 462) etc.

It is instructive to note that whilst Section 3 of CAP 84 prohibits development within a planning area, Section 19 deals with penalty for contravention of a planning scheme.

It states:

“A person who wilfully does an act, whether of commission or omission, which is a contravention of a provision contained in a scheme is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding one thousand five hundred penalty units, and in the case of a continuing offence, to a further fine of over hundred and fifty penalty units for every day during which the offence continues”.

So why then should we as nation sit by for indiscipline and flagrant violation of planning schemes which could lead to disasters take place?

Section 16 of the same law gives the sector Minister the power to enforce and carry into effect schemes to the extent that he may at any time remove, pull down or alter, so as to bring into conformity with a planning scheme, building or any other work which does not conform to the scheme, etc.

Section 9 of the Towns Act, 1892, CAP 86 empowers the Director of Public Works, who may by legislative instrument, make regulations for the control, under permit or otherwise of the construction of buildings and any other structures and the execution of work on existing buildings and structures etc.

How effective has this piece of legislation, however, been inspite of the penalties under section 11 for contravention?

Section 93 of the Minerals and Mining Act 2006, Act 703 states that, “A person licensed under Section 82 may win, mine, and produce minerals by an effective and efficient method and shall observe good mining practices, health and safety rules and pay due regard to the protection of the environment during mining operations”.

Section 95 of the same law prohibits the use of explosives by a small-scale miner without written permission of the Minister on the recommendation of the Minerals Commission. Why then would we as a nation sit by for these laws to be flouted leading to disaster before we start crying from the roof top?

Until we, as a nation, fully commit ourselves to disaster prevention and reduction by respecting the existing laws and learning from international best practices we would forever be vulnerable to disaster.

By Yaw Adjei Afriyie Nketiah


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