In Namibia, shack fires are an everyday occurrence, often leading to death and injuries as well as displacement and damage to property.
According to official figures, about one million Namibians live in informal settlements, where poor housing conditions increase the risk of lethal fires, largely due to the use of flammable construction material as well as other heating and cooking methods.
The lack of effective fire services has also been attributed as a factor.
This past week, a huge fire destroyed the prized assets of more than 20 families at Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.
The families not only lost their homes but national documents, schoolbooks, stationery and goods they were selling as a means of survival.
Kuisebmond resident Festus Kalondo (18) also died on Friday evening when his shack caught fire while he was cooking.
The coastal towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund have been a hotspot of shack fires over the years – and the latest incidents once again bring to the fore the continuous challenges residents in informal settlements face due to a lack of housing.
The horrible fire incident of Walvis Bay’s Twaloloka, which displaced about 1 000 people after 200 shacks burned down, is still fresh in our minds. The ferocity of that blaze was never seen before by the majority of residents. Now, as cries of anguish reverberated through the DRC informal settlement in Swakopmund as hapless residents sifted through ashes and counting their losses, it is sad to see there is seemingly no solution in sight to end these disasters.
It begs the question of whether the authorities are doing enough to end this calamity.
The Swakopmund municipality has only 10 permanently employed firefighters.
Despite installing fire hydrants in DRC, there are serious challenges with water connection, which is essential in fighting fire, effectively rendering these hydrants useless.
A number of prepaid water meters are also vandalised at the settlement. DRC also has a satellite fire station that is fortunately operationally, while the local authority is in the process of building an emergency safe house that will be used to house fire victims in cases of emergency. On the other hand, Walvis Bay only has 11 permanently employed firefighters and no fire hydrants are installed in the informal settlements.
However, surrounding residences have fire hydrants but they too are often vandalised and stolen by unscrupulous elements.
While we admit arriving at a permanent solution will not be easy, there is a need for a more holistic approach to the prevention of shack fires, including better planning, with a great emphasis on eliminating informal settlements.
Yes, for many unemployed, migrating from rural to urban centres, shacks are the only affordable accommodation in urban areas. Many a times, the provision for water, refuse removal and electricity is inadequate in these types of settings. We are also cognizant of the fact that the country has a huge housing backlog of nearly 300 000 units, as government struggles to keep up with the demand for low-income housing.
For this reason, there is a need to devise potential strategies, including short- and long-term solutions, aimed at ending shack fires, including ultimately eradicating shacks in our society. In the interim, local authorities and regional councils should work hand-in-hand with central government to ensure current settlements are equipped with fully functioning fire hydrants and an uninterrupted water supply.