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The role of technology in disaster management in informal settlements and townships in South Africa

 

In the second part of the series on rapid urbanisation in South Africa, Elena Williams, an expert in international trade, business and economic development, and an adviser to the Connected Places Catapult, discusses the role of technology in disaster management in informal settlements and townships.

 

The Challenges

Townships in South Africa were created by the apartheid government, by uprooting and displacing African, coloured and Indian communities and moving them to low quality land and dwellings, to provide clusters of labour to serve the country. While informal settlements have their genesis under the same system, a lack of adequate housing provision to keep pace with rural to urban migration, and the entrenchment of poverty and inequality in post-democratic South Africa means that these informal ‘towns’ and clusters, that appear largely on municipal land, roadsides and green spaces, continue to grow.

Built with low quality, high inflammable materials, often on land vulnerable to the elements, and without adequate sanitation, electricity or water, these communities provide a significant challenge for the disaster management and preparedness of the municipalities and city administrations in which they occur.

 

At the Mercy of the Elements

A number of factors in townships and informal settlements (TISs) contribute to the challenges, and exacerbate the impact, of disasters in those communities. Inappropriate density, multigenerational households, plus poor or non-existent infrastructure such as roads means the impact of one seemingly isolated incident, such as a fire in a shack, can have an exponentially detrimental impact on the lives of many.

‘Inappropriate density, multigenerational households, plus poor or non-existent infrastructure such as roads means the impact of one seemingly isolated incident, such as a fire in a shack, can have an exponentially detrimental impact on the lives of many.’

In April 2019 the province of KwaZulu-Natal experienced its worst ever floods, which led to loss of more than 85 lives, and the displacement of thousands of its residents, with those in informal settlements being the worst hit. This was only two years after floods devastated and displaced a number of communities in the same region, and from which those communities had yet to recover.

In 2019 the City of Cape Town recorded 24 deaths and over 180 shack fires from just the month of December alone. While residents have been provided with fire and safety education, the emergency services battle density and the informal structures in their quest to administer aid to those communities – a challenge experienced by emergency services across the country.

 

Urban Innovation Challenge

One company that has risen to the global ‘tech for good’ innovation challenge, and is deploying that tech in South Africa, is What 3 Words. Using a geocode system for communication of location, they’ve divided every inch of the planet into 3 metre squares, and given each square a unique three word address which is as accurate as GPS coordinates. What 3 Words is used by the UN to deliver emergency aid to places that don’t have street addresses, accepted by the Automobile Association (AA) in the UK as a valid breakdown location, and some Mercedes Benz and Tata Motor customers can use What3Words to navigate to their destinations.

In South Africa, some of the country’s emergency service providers accept What3Words to help them locate users who would otherwise be hard to find. This is a game changer and potential life-saver for people living in informal settlements or communities that lack the physical infrastructure that enables timely and easy accessibility. Users also have the added bonus of data-free access to the platform following What3Words’ recent partnership with Vodacom, the country’s largest telecoms provider.

‘In South Africa, some of the country’s emergency service providers accept What3Words to help them locate users who would otherwise be hard to find. This is a game changer and potential life-saver for people living in informal settlements or communities that lack the physical infrastructure that enables timely and easy accessibility.’

‘The legacy of apartheid spatial planning means that many South Africans struggle to tell emergency services where they are in their time of greatest need,’ said Lyndsey Duff, What3Words Country Manager, South Africa when I met with her. ‘By using What3Words addresses, emergency services have been responding faster to callers without formal addresses. They send a link to a caller’s cellphone which automatically displays the 3 words of their location,’ explained Lyndsey. ‘However, that tiny action required data on the part of the caller, and when they had insufficient data to open the link, they were denied the opportunity to describe their location for faster emergency response.

‘Vodacom is the first telcoms company in the world to zero-rate the link used by emergency services to acquire callers’ locations, meaning that 43 million South Africans can now find their location in an emergency without having to use any data,’ she added. ‘This is a crucial step to evening the playing field across the country and providing critical services to all who need them, no matter where they live.’

 

 Covid-19 and the case for tech collaborations

As part of its response to the current pandemic, the South African government has partnered with tech recruitment platform Offerzen, to tap into the country’s strong tech ecosystem. Offerzen has been asked to use its platform to help identify suitable projects that can impact the government’s ability to respond to the crisis, disseminate requests and galvanise the tech community, recruit volunteers to support these projects (I’ve signed up!), and to connect community members to government partners as is required.

Partnerships between national government and tech platforms, small businesses, municipalities and city administrations, tech companies and not-for-profits, or even tech innovators and telecoms giants, as we have seen with What3Words, are pivotal to addressing many of the challenges faced by countries like South Africa – from long-standing structural and economic issues to health crises and pandemics like Covid-19. It’s imperative that those of us in the economic development sector champion the strengths of multi-sector projects, and support and drive such collaboration.

 

Urban Links Africa has been established by the UK’s national centre of excellence for urban innovation, Connected Places Catapult, to identify the UK’s six best-in-class SMEs and partner them with their most impressive local counterparts in some of Africa’s most rapidly emerging cities, specifically: Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa, and Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu in Kenya.

Click here for more information on how you can participate in this project.