In 2000, Cyclone Eline devastated Mozambique and killed 700 people. South Africa scrambled and got six helicopters into flooded areas within days, rescuing more than 14 000 people from trees and rooftops, with rising water swirling below them.
Earlier this month, Cyclone Idai smashed into Mozambique, Malawi and eastern Zimbabwe. The death toll is heading towards 1 000.
The United Nations has called it one of the worst natural disasters to have hit the southern hemisphere. South Africa took a week to pull together enough resources to respond. Four helicopters crossed the border to help. They have to cover a larger area than in 2000 and only two are Oryxes, the South African Air Force’s big helicopters.
Although we own 35 Oryxes, just a third are operational. Five are assisting peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an operation that costs the department nearly R900-million a year. The rest are on standby for disasters in South Africa.
An Antonov plane had to be chartered to help lift material because the air force’s own C-130s are either out of action or busy.
The money to pay for this comes from the defence department’s budget. There is no disaster contingency fund. No extra money from the national fiscus. The military has to do more with less. In the nearly two decades since Cyclone Eline, the air force’s budget has decreased, whereas the cost of food, fuel and equipment needed to respond to a disaster has increased. Aviation fuel, for example, has more than doubled in cost.
To respond to disasters, the army, navy and air force have to have people and equipment ready to go at short notice. Oryxes need to be serviced and their pilots need to have accumulated enough flying hours each year to keep their qualifications up to date.
Enough aviation fuel and stockpiled food has to be ready to support weeks of operations a thousand kilometres away.
In 2016, the medium-term expenditure framework cut the defence department’s budget by R10-billion over the next three years. Further cuts have followed. This means the air force, by its own admission to its parliamentary portfolio committee, can only afford to fly 10 000 hours a year. The number was 35 000 when Cyclone Eline hit the Mozambique coastline. And even then the air force struggled.
In its case study of that disaster response, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said South Africa didn’t have enough money for fuel for its six helicopters.
“There were several occasions when the South African fleet was on the verge of withdrawing,” the institute reported.
That situation only changed when other countries agreed to cover the fuel cost.
With fewer helicopters, the department says it has budgeted R59‑million for a two-month operation. It will need to take this money out of other parts of its budget.
Dr Sam Gulube, the secretary for defence and military veterans in the defence department, says: “We are at a point where it is a big challenge for us to fulfil our core functions.”
These range from border security (there aren’t enough troops to guard the
border) to maritime security (the navy doesn’t have enough vessels to patrol the oceans and stop illegal fishing), peacekeeping and responding to natural disasters.
If a disaster happens inside South Africa, the military is reimbursed by the local government where it gives assistance.
But that price only looks at the cost of the military presence — it does not include the cost of buying new equipment or keeping it in good shape. Aid for disasters in other countries is not reimbursed.
Mindful that climate change will bring with it more and more intense disasters, Gulube says it will be “very difficult” for the country to respond properly to these.
South Africa spends less than 1% of its budget on defence, with money going to competing interests, such as education and healthcare. The 2014 Defence Review, a planning document looking at the future of the armed forces, warned that “the defence force is in a critical state of decline”.
Looking at climate change, the review said Southern Africa should expect more droughts and more floods. More disasters will also mean neighbouring states, which have little capacity to respond to floods or crippling drought, will need more help.
“The defence force would in particular be expected to maintain a capacity to provide a significant supportive role in addressing the consequences of such events,” the report said.
But that capacity is vanishing. Cyclone Idai showed what happens when fewer resources must respond to increasingly bigger problems.