Why this research is important
Image credit: © 2019 Dalene Swanson
A flood of intersecting issues and a slow-burning crisis
South Africa’s township residents are beset with legacy economic and social challenges of apartheid, poverty, and constrained development opportunities. The scale of this challenge is heightened by migration to cities, and rapid, extensive growth of formal and informal settlements, which are extremely susceptible to environmental risks. Climate change has exacerbated the risk of disasters as these destructive events have increased in severity and frequency. Urban densification, infrastructural collapse, poor post-apartheid governance, as well as mistrust between marginalised communities and state actors has compounded the effects of environmental disasters. Disenfranchised groups, including migrants, unemployed youth, the elderly, and ethnic and linguistic minorities are most at risk of the direct, indirect, immediate and systemic harms of such events, especially as they are intimately and complexly interwoven with structural oppressions, such as poverty, gender discrimination, racism, violence, and political alienation. Infrastructural collapse and emergency or disaster response services to township fire-outbreaks and water-shortages have been met with violence, where breakdown in trust between different levels of government, public services, and township residents have frequently provoked outrage.
Three escalating factors and two paradoxes
Three escalating environmental hazards disproportionately and differentially impact on excluded communities on the Cape Flats of Cape Town, South Africa. These are recurrent large-scale fires, widespread water shortages and in-access, and large-scale flooding. Residents are thus faced with the almost paradoxical co-existence of floods and fires, and water that is simultaneously too much and not enough. To mitigate the social impacts of disasters related to water and fire, and to meet the justice and inclusion priorities of the UN SDGs and UNISDR Sendai Framework priorities of ‘build back better’, risk-affected communities need to be supported to lead policy and practice changes to reduce these risks.
Mobilising local knowledges to ‘build back better’ and challenge current disaster management practices
The project draws on themes of water and fire to bring disaster risk management to sustainable development by building local capacity in directing decisions for responses to environmental hazards that most affect the marginalised. In an age of government austerity and economic strain, township residents have been forced to become increasingly self-reliant and resourceful. The project will supportively mobilise local knowledges to mitigate disaster by prioritising co-produced, cooperative strategies. These may include co-activation of practical community-driven programmes, but also bottom-up policy strategy development to effectively respond to environmental disasters.
We will engage democratic and creative participatory methods to mobilise the lived experiences of affected residents as primary evidence to challenge current disaster management processes and promote community-based resilience actions. Through the systematic co-development of a set of resilience actions, this project will directly benefit risk-affected communities in their efforts to mitigate disaster risks and achieve sustainable livelihoods.
These resilience actions include collaborative partnership with risk-affected communities to: assemble local knowledge drawn from residents’ lived experiences to mitigate risks; engage indigenous democratic processes and creative interventions to mobilise local knowledge towards proactive responses to disaster risks; mobilise local knowledge to co-develop a set of agreed 15 “Best Bets” as shared, practical resilience actions to help reduce disaster risks; develop these 15 “Best Bets” into a community-driven policy strategy for disaster risk reduction; in the process, create a democratic framework for co-developing policy strategies and community resilience actions to reduce disaster risks in affected communities. Planned activities will include legkotlas, indabas, community mapping activities, digital story-telling, and public engagement events to showcase creative and useable products of the community-driven engagement process, thus increasing positive societal impact.