IOL: Toxic water killed E Cape babies – report

I just read this article IOL: Toxic water killed E Cape babies – report and there are a few items that I would like to use as discussion and learning points. I will raise my comments in italics.

  • An interim report acknowledged that a “multiplicity of causes” including “systematic failures affecting water quality” were to blame for the deaths of the babies, said the provincial government in a statement.

This statement in itself is already a warning for Crisis Managers in organizations. Problems tend to occur in clusters. When one problem or barrier has been identified, there will most likely be others associated with it. A staff member who does not show responsibility because of undefined or unrealistic work expectations will likely also show a level of distrust in his or her superiors. It is essential to identify the nature of the multiple barriers and problems and to deal with the whole cluster.

Problems and barriers also tend to sustain and reinforce each other. Suppose, for example, that the effectiveness and quality of communication between a municipal manager and a government office are hampered because he mistrusts them and they are geographically distant from each other.

The geographic distance will reduce the likelihood that the mistrust will be overcome, and, at the same time, the mistrust prevents the bridging of the distance. Although one problem may be eliminated, interdependency means that the force of the other sustaining problems may counteract the effort.

To solve problems before they escalate into crisis  situations will need systemic thinking. Holistic thinking needs to be taught – it does not come naturally.

  • The report states that urgent action, including declaring an emergency in the area, was apparently recommended but not carried out. This sounds just like what happened when Hurricane Latrina (I know it is supposed to be Katrina, but when all the effluent and waters mixed it became like a latrine)struck. It took the Mayor of New Orleans 48 hours to enact his plan.

This raises serious doubt over the ability of municipalities to react to disasters and emergencies. I wonder how many of these municipalities comply with the Disaster Management Act. I wonder how many comply with international best practice when it comes to testing of plans.

  • An official health report, tabled two weeks at a closed council meeting, indicated there had been a breakdown in a water purification works in October last year.

Yet no action was taken. It is called Assumptions. To assume that staff will repair something is naive. To assume that a small insignificant issue does not have the potential to cause harm is naive and it points directly to the type of thinking methodologies employed by managers and employees.

  • The report states that the Cloete Joubert Hospital in Barkly East failed to report the deaths in time for a proper investigation but a senior hospital manager said the municipality did nothing until 15 deaths were reported.

This points directly to communication failures, and it raises serious points with regards to incident reporting mechanisms, internal communication structures and process flow. I wonder who in Government looks at these type of things. Who conducts Communication audits? Who ensures that these types of issues are addressed.

GCIS? I doubt it. The Health Department Communication staff? I doubt it! Internal Communication needs regular attention. It needs auditing.

  • On Wednesday, the provincial government said other socio-economic factors were also to blame including poor service delivery, environmental health and human resource “challenges”.For example there had been inadequate intravenous fluids and antibiotics to deal with the babies who became ill.

This again highlights lack of planning and supply chain management. Something is wrong with the system. It is a known fact in Organizational Development circles that a bad system will always beat a good employee’s intentions. Lack of Service delivery points directly to leadership.

In the Private sector there is consequences when there is failure and lack of performance. In local government there is cover ups and progression up the ranks because the only criteria used is that of political clout.

  • The report also states that people did not have enough Health education.

This is a rural area and there are difficulties in communication sure enough. However it points directly to the authorities.Water, Health and Hygiene issues fall into the realm of Risk communication. Again I must question risk communication efforts in municipal districts as well as the ability of any organization to conduct crisis communication.

Just to enlighten my readers, Crisis communication refers to communication about an unfortunate event or occurrence that can hurt people, organizations, and economies, among other things. Risk communication refers to communication related to the health and safety of people and the environment.

While we can see that the principles of risk communication sometimes pertain to crisis communication… It is also clear that not all risk communication is crisis communication, and, conversely, not all crisis communication is risk communication.

The message of how to deal with a water contamination situation – now that it is a crisis situation, is that Crisis Communication or Risk Communication? Read the last 2 paragraphs of the news release, and let me know what you think.