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Municipal infrastructure maintenance is vital

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Municipalities in South Africa are urged to take a proactive approach in maintaining infrastructure that is safe for public use at all times. With increasing incidents of vandalism and theft rendering infrastructure unsafe, it is up to municipalities to ensure that all risks are mitigated, as failing to do so may leave municipalities open to sizeable liability claims.

This is according to Storm Canham, casualty underwriter at Lion of Africa Insurance, who says losses due to theft and vandalism put municipalities in a tight financial situation, making it difficult for them to rebuild and rehabilitate public infrastructure. She urges municipalities to ensure they have enough capital available for immediate rehabilitation, or repair, of damaged public infrastructure.

“The recent collapse of the bridge over Durban’s Umgeni River, as a result of its metal shackles being stolen, has cost the municipalities of KwaZulu-Natal millions of rands. Fortunately no human injuries were incurred. However, this incident highlights the urgent need for municipalities to strictly enforce regular assessment of the state of public facilities and infrastructure. These include, but are not limited to, stadiums, civic centres, parks, dams, roads and other such public and recreational facilities where large numbers of the general public congregate,” says Canham.

She refers to past examples of 2010 FIFA World Cup stadiums which Lion of Africa Insurance insured. “For example, one stadium had its seats damaged by patrons and another had its boundary walls stolen. Had this not been picked up and fixed timeously, public using the stadium could have been injured and claimed for this from the local municipality.”

According to Canham, municipalities have also seen an increase in theft of or malicious damage to traffic lights and street lamps. Theft of underground cabling is also on the increase from infrastructure construction sites.

“Each of the above mentioned incidences has the potential to amount to millions of rands in highly complex liability claims.  If a person is caught damaging public infrastructure, they will be charged. However, in many cases the offender is likely to be unemployed and unable to pay for the infrastructure damages. Therefore, the liability lies with the municipalities.”

Canham says since its inception, the Consumer Protection Act has increased the responsibility put on these municipalities, to ensure the safety of third parties using public facilities and infrastructure. It is therefore imperative that the incidences of accidents are not enhanced by any poor or unsafe public facilities and infrastructure.

“If an accident occurs due to damaged infrastructure and an injury is incurred, the injured party will have recourse to claim against the municipality, as the municipality is liable for death, bodily injury, illness or disease and property damage sustained by the general public on or in any of their premises. In addition, this no longer hinges on their negligence.”

Canham says there are ways that risks can be mitigated. “Regular assessment of the state of infrastructure needs to become a strictly enforced measure of a municipalities’ performance.”

She says other ways to eliminate risks include having easy to understand notifications and warnings visible to the general public where any potential danger is identified, as well as having sufficient security in place to discourage vandalism and destruction of public property.

“Areas of dangerous or hazardous conditions must be clearly demarcated and attended to within the framework of repairs and maintenance programmes. The authorities need to ensure that the general public is notified immediately about any dangerous and hazardous conditions, regardless of the time of day, location or whereabouts.”

Furthermore, she says the general public should have access to a controlled 24 hour network or call centre to notify the authorities of any dangerous or hazardous conditions at any public location.