SWAZILAND: Fires become a national disaster

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Swaziland has declared a national emergency in response to raging fires that have swept through parts of the kingdom, engulfing as many as 300 homesteads, killing livestock and destroying crops and large swathes of commercial tree plantations.

At least a dozen people have died, and firefighters have sought to contain the blazes because high winds have made extinguishing them an all but impossible task.

Garrett Lushaba, a firefighter in the central Manzini region, told IRIN, "Today we slept, but it has been two days since we slept."

Declaring the fires a national disaster, Prime Minister Themba Dlamini told parliament this week, "All of us should put everything else aside and focus on this disaster."

The UN's office for the coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a situation report that the fires "have destroyed approximately 80 percent of the Mondi Forest Plantation in Piggs Peak," in the northwest of the country.

The forests, which belong to Mondi a South African paper and pulp company, cover about 19,500 hectares and employ 1,200 people, OCHA said. The company was encountering problems supplying potable water to its workers after the fire damaged water system infrastructure.

About 45km southeast of the capital, Mbabane, fires have destroyed about 4,000 hectares, or about seven percent of the forest under cultivation by Sappi Usutu, the Swaziland subsidiary of the South African timber company, Sappi.

Arson or accident?

Sappi officials told Dlamini on a tour of the affected areas that the company believed the fire was the result of arson.

However, the blazes have coincided with the country's burning season, in which farmers and plot owners purposely set fire to grass or stubble left over from the harvest, a traditional practice now being put under scrutiny.

Manzini resident Martha Dlamini said veld fires had razed two buildings on her family farm in rural Mliba, 50km north of Manzini, and that the problem was the authorities' "laissez-faire attitude towards allowing people to burn every blade of grass they see, despite laws against this."

Parliament recently approved a US$20 million supplementary budget for drought relief, and a portion of this "will now be diverted to the fire emergency response," OCHA said in its situation report.

The international community is awaiting an official report on the losses and has not pledged any funds in response to the government's disaster declaration.

Source: IRIN
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