Sustainable Solutions Needed to Prevent Shack Fires

energy Slums Shack Fires
Wednesday, 8 June, 2011 - 09:43

The South African government should work towards eradicating conditions that give rise to shack fires in informal settlements. There is a link between the increasing incidents of shack fires and the socio-economic hardships faced by the poor

There are very few things more important than having a safe place to stay. However, for many shack dwellers, their homes are places to die due to fires that regularly destroy their lives, homes and belongings. Numerous reports of shack fires punctuate our newspapers and radio shows. Media consumers express temporary shock, debates abound, but sustainable solutions are in short supply.

The issue of shack fires has elicited strong condemnation from almost all the political parties in the weeks leading to the local government elections. This is a welcome development even though it is long overdue and smacks of political opportunism. Now that the elections are over, we hope whoever wins in various areas will act decisively to address the root causes of shack fires.

Shack fires are a socio-economic construct. At the heart of the problem is abject poverty. People live in congested houses, built from combustible materials. Many of them are unemployed and therefore cannot afford safe energy sources and appliances. In addition, excessive levels of alcohol consumption lead to risky behaviour and lack of proper supervision of children in the home. Sometimes children are left alone with a flame burning in the home. Any solution must urgently address these deep seated issues.

With the winter upon us, many municipalities and welfare organisations are ready to react to fire and other disasters that will surely arise. They are ready with fire-fighters and water tanks to douse fires. They are ready with blankets and clothes to distribute to the affected people. These are crucial activities to alleviate the people’s suffering. Behind some of these reactionary approaches over many areas, there is little substance particularly when it comes to the plight of the poor.  This is proved by a diverse gulf that exists between the in-depth forensic investigations that occur after domestic fires in the more affluent areas and the dismissive enquiry that results when it occurs in informal areas. However, until the issue of household energy safety receives the urgent attention of the highest echelons of political and economic power, sustainable solutions will not be reached.

The solution to this problem is a political commitment to implementing a household energy safety system. The safe access and usage of energy by all householders for their thermal applications needs to be addressed. People need access to a safe and affordable range of energy carriers for cooking, lighting and heating their homes. This applies to the safety of all energy sources namely, paraffin, gas, electricity, firewood, candle etc. Our research has shown consistently that almost all energy sources mentioned can and do cause fires from time to time. So the solution to shack fires lies in the safety of all these energy sources and systems.

South Africa’s energy provision is heavily reliant on electricity due to availability of coal. Furthermore, a myth has been perpetuated that all household energy provision should be electrical via the national grid. However, this is not sustainable because coal is finite and it has hugely negative environmental impacts such as air pollution. Huge losses in generation and transmission are also overlooked. Apart from this, with the increasing population and migration to urban centres, our country does not have the capacity to generate and distribute electricity to all its citizens.

Furthermore, poor homes cannot afford the increased prices required to finance the maintenance of the infrastructure. This means that all other energy sources, must be harnessed, cleaned, made safe and used particularly for the household context. The recognition of the multiplicity of energy sources is a crucial component of the national household energy safety system.

With the election behind us, it is time for political leaders to eliminate comprehensively the conditions that give rise to shack fires. They must address the housing issues, recognise and improve the safety of multiple sources of energy and implement a comprehensive household energy safety policy throughout all the municipalities. The policy should include consumer education on safe energy usage. Unless political rhetoric is accompanied by a strong commitment to the implementation of a household energy safety system, we will continue to have shack fires in South Africa.

- Patrick Kulati is managing director at Paraffin Safety Association of Southern Africa (www.paraffinsafety.org).

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