Action Required to Reduce Fire-Related Fatalities During Winter

Thursday, 12 July, 2018 - 11:20

As it is the case every winter, poor South Africans who rely on paraffin as their only source of energy continue to be exposed to shack-related fires, paraffin-related burns and deaths

Statistics about social problems are meaningless if they fail to jolt people into action. Commenting on statistics about forced removals, Colin Bundy made the following profound statement. He said “There is a sense in which these appalling figures have been cited so often that we are used to them; that we cease to realise their import, their horror - what they mean in terms of degradation, misery and psychological and physical suffering”. With the winter upon us with its attendant shack fires and destruction, media will be awash with statistics of burn victims, survivors and related stories.
I found myself thinking about this statement as a journalist asked me recently about household energy related incidents in South Africa’s informal settlements. Reluctantly, I informed him that globally, fire-related burns are responsible for about 265 000 deaths annually with over 90 percent occurring in developing or low and middle income countries (LMICs). I went on to indicate that burns are among the most devastating of all injuries, with outcomes spanning the spectrum from physical impairments and disfigurement, to emotional and mental consequences. Despite the fact that injury due to burns is largely preventable, Africa carries an extraordinary burden of fire related injuries. It is estimated that over a million patients are burned annually on the African continent, with 18 percent of hospital admissions and six to ten percent of mortality being burn related.
In South Africa, a Medical Research Council report estimates that each year 3.2 percent (1 600 000) of the country’s population will suffer from burn injuries, with the vast majority being from poorer communities. This high incidence is driven by negative impact factors including the influx of people to urban areas, haphazard urban development, overcrowding, inadequate electrification of homes in low-income communities, paraffin and bio-mass fuels used as the primary energy sources, and lack of effective preventative and education programmes.
Young children are particularly vulnerable, with death as a result of burn injuries claiming approximately 1 300 young lives each year. This concentration of burn mortality and injury among infants and toddlers occurs more frequently among very young black children below the age of three. Incidents of burn injury thereafter decrease until adolescence when burn mortality rates start to increase once older children become exposed to a wider range of high-risk activities such as cooking and lighting fires for morning and evening meals - both of which are activities common for older children in low-income settings. Older children also spend an increasing amount of time with other children, older siblings and adults outside the home. This widening social network exposes them to risks posed by open fires initiated for heating and cooking and managing heating appliances and heated appliances or utensils.
At this point I asked myself the question: So what? Until we answer this question by individually and collectively trying to do something practical about this. Government can address the socio-economic conditions that undergird these problems and implement regulations that promote household energy safety. Businesses can educate their employees about what they can do to prevent fires from taking place and invest developing safe technologies and systems. Individuals can take responsibility for their safety. Schools can include home energy safety in their curriculums and organisations can collaborate to eradicate this scourge. This is how statistics can jolt us into action.

  • This article was written by Patrick Kulati, Habitat for Humanity SA's National Director

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