Access to electricity not preventing shack fires

Alberto Francioli

Even though many households in informal settlements have access to electricity as a safer source of energy, the number of dwelling fires in these areas haven’t decreased, a new study at Stellenbosch University (SU) found.

“Despite near universal access to electricity in informal settlements, dwelling fires remain a
frequent occurrence because many households continue to utilise non-electric energy sources, as well as increasing reports of fires caused by faulty or informal electric connections,” says Alberto Francioli, a staff member of the Research
Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (RADAR) at SU.

Supervised by Dr Robin Pharoah from RADAR, Mr Francioli, who is also a volunteer firefighter, completed the first-ever Master’s degree in Disaster Risk Science and Development at SU.

He received the degree on Thursday March 22.

As part of his study, Mr Francioli set out to identify the energy sources being used by low-income households in Lwandle, Nomzamo and Asanda Village in Somerset West and Strand.

In particular, he wanted to investigate whether residents continue to frequently employ dangerous non-electric energy sources such as candles, paraffin and even firewood despite the access to electricity.

Mr Francioli says the aim was to determine the factors influencing these choices, the implications these energy choices have for fire risk, as well as the measures households employ to mitigate the risk of fire.

He held focus group sessions with residents and also used a household survey to collect information on household energy use strategies, perceptions of safety and accessibility of energy sources and experiences of energy-related fires from residents living in different types of dwellings. 

Mr Francioli points out that approximately 67.2% of households make use of energy stacking i.e. they alternate between electricity and paraffin to meet their daily energy needs.

“A potential consequence of this energy stacking approach is that the majority of households continue to face the risk of a dwelling fire caused by non-electric energy sources.

“Unsurprisingly, fires in areas such as Lwandle, Nomzamo and Asanda Village have been attributed to the usage of unsafe and potentially hazardous forms of energy such as candles for lighting, paraffin for cooking and boiling water and firewood for heating of dwellings.

“It has often been prescribed that key to curbing dwelling fires among low-income residential areas is to increase people’s access to electricity.”

However, Mr Francioli’s research also found that dwelling fires caused by electric sources also appears to be on the rise, particularly among formal households and their backyard dwellings situated on their property.

“Fires in informal settlements are very costly to low-income families and cause massive destruction in their lives,” he said, adding that some households in these informal settlements continue to use paraffin and fire wood because electricity is too expensive.

“While electricity is the predominant energy source used, households may be unable to fully utilise it because of financial constraints or issues regarding physical accessibility to and quality of electrical connections.

“Sometimes for very large households it is cheaper to use paraffin to cook and to provide heating in winter.”

Mr Francioli points out that despite being frequently exposed to many potentially hazardous electric and non-electric energy sources, many households do implement a number of measures to mitigate to reduce their exposure and mitigate the risk of experiencing a dwelling fire.

“These included, among others, the use of a minimum of electrical appliances simultaneously, to avoid over loading of electrical connections (i.e. overheating or creating sparks which can ignite nearby flammable materials); ensuring when using non-electrical energy sources such as paraffin or candles they are placed away from other flammable materials and constantly supervised; keeping young children away from non-electric energy sources (in case they knock them over or play with them), educating them about the dangers of such energy sources and how to use them in a safe and proper way; and keeping constant vigilance for signs of fire or impending fire in their own home as well as their neighbours,” he said.

Commenting on the significance of his degree, Mr Francioli says disaster risk is an incredibly important subject. “It’s a crucial and multidisciplinary field that can be applied to agriculture, infrastructure, transport, urban planning, even economics and psychology and a whole realm of possibilities.

“Hopefully, more people will hear about and become interested in disaster risk as a subject be-
cause it’s about safeguarding us against the possibility of future disasters.”

Mr Francioli says he plans to publish his findings in academic journals.