Displaced KZN flood victims relive the horror of being driven from their homes forever
The floods that ravaged KwaZulu-Natal in early April destroyed thousands of homes and displaced an estimated 40,000 people. As extreme weather events become more common in a changing climate, even more people are at risk of displacement. Our Burning Planet visited the province and spoke to some of the thousands of people who were driven from their homes.
It was around midnight when Delane Memela awoke to the sound of heavy rainfall on Monday, 11 April 2022. The water level around his home in the Annet Drive informal settlement, Reservoir Hills was still quite low.
A sudden crack and whoosh of sound; somewhere nearby a tree had fallen and plummeted down the slope of the valley. It crashed through other sturdy eucalyptus trees, snapping their limbs and shredding bark from their trunks.
Within seconds the water had risen to knee height.
The stream near Memela’s home had become a raging river, and he watched as the water spilled down the valley towards him. It moved in surges, capturing cars and engulfing homes, adding them to its violent and destructive path.
Somewhere inside it, it also carried people. How many, no one knew then.
“When I went outside, there were cars [that had shifted from where they were parked], and I saw houses coming towards me from up the river.
“I then heard people screaming.”
Monday, 11 April 2022 would be the last night Memela would spend in his home in Reservoir Hills, the area in which he was born. The flood demolished his house and the dwellings of 155 others in his community, forcing him and his neighbours to flee in the dark, and take refuge in a local school.
April besieged KwaZulu-Natal with one of the worst natural disasters in South Africa’s history. The extreme weather that struck the province on 11 April killed at least 435 people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced about 40,000 people. In the aftermath, more than 8,400 people are reportedly being housed in community halls, religious facilities and other temporary structures within communities.
Read Daily Maverick’s coverage of the floods: “KZN floods: Read these stories about the scale, science and economic impact of the devastation”
When Our Burning Planet visited KwaZulu-Natal nearly two weeks after catastrophic flooding wreaked havoc in the province – as search-and-rescue teams were still searching for the dozens of people unaccounted for – many people were only just beginning to process the destruction around them.
Our Burning Planet spoke to some of the thousands of people who were forced to flee from their homes in the face of inexorable danger – many of whom are now living in limbo.
The (hot) topic of climate migration
As the planet warms, climate change is predicted to displace millions of people. But a warmer world does not hurt equally, and climate change is having a disproportionate impact on people living in the Global South – the people who have contributed the least to the current state of our burning planet.
Estimates of future displacement attributed to climate change and other environmental causes vary between 25 million and one billion in 2050, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report. The report looks at what happens when people hit the limits of what they can adapt to and are forced to move.
“Environmental migration – including rural to urban migration – triggered by climate change may ensue from either slow- or rapid-onset climatic events and could be either temporary, cyclical or permanent movement that occurs within or beyond national boundaries,” it reads.
Chapter 9 of the report provides a regional analysis for Africa, projecting that by 2030, about 250 million people may experience high water stress, with up to 700 million internally displaced as a result. With Africa’s population weighing in at 1.4 billion, half of the continent could be displaced as a result of climate change by 2030. And this is only taking into account displacement spurred by protracted drought.
While the prevailing narrative in countries in the Global North tends to be that climate change will have far-reaching implications on human mobility to the extent that it could drive mass human migration from countries in the Global South to the Global North, founder and executive director of the organisation, Climate Refugees, Amali Tower says “nothing could be further from the truth”.
“People are not coming to Europe and North America, as much as the narrative paints that picture,” she says.
It is important to stress that in the majority of cases, climate change-induced migration is internal, as people tend to move within the borders of their own country, according to Tower. “People are displaced and migrating within their own countries.” When cross-border migration does occur, she says, it’s to a neighbouring country.
“If 700 million people in Africa are going to be displaced, they’re going to be displaced in Africa, and within their own countries and in neighbouring countries. That is a huge loss and damage – which is the terminology that is in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – to Africa, and that’s a climate justice issue because Africa accounts for the smallest share of global greenhouse gas emissions, at just 3.8%,” Tower told Our Burning Planet.
Although it is difficult to pin climate change as the sole driver of migration, it “is considered as one of the drivers of displacement” and is linked to many other factors or drivers (social, economic, political), according to Ivana Hajžmanová, regional coordinator for MENA and sub-Saharan Africa at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a global organisation monitoring internal displacement.
Hajžmanová explained that climate change is contributing to adverse environmental conditions, ranging from natural disasters and extreme weather events, to more gradual changes in climate, exacerbating underlying tensions and conditions, and working as a critical driver of internal displacement and migration.
Slow-onset events, such as land degradation, coastal erosion, drought and sea-level rise, “are disasters which really evolve quite slowly, over many months and, in many cases, even over many years”, says Hajžmanová. Because slow-onset events are more gradual, it’s difficult to gauge when a slow-onset disaster starts and how it progresses, she explains.
Sudden-onset events are disasters that happen “quickly and quite unexpectedly”, such as floods and tropical cyclones. “They might take a few hours or days. And that’s exactly what happened in KwaZulu-Natal,” she says.
The IDMC has developed a global displacement risk model to project displacement associated with sudden-onset disasters, in order to “start presenting evidence on how to address internal displacement from a prospective point of view by assessing the likelihood of such population movements taking place in the future”.
Globally, the model estimates that, on average, 13.9 million people could be displaced every year, due to sudden-onset disasters, according to Hajžmanová. The IDMC’s model estimates that in South Africa, an average of 68,000 people could get displaced every year, with floods being the sudden-onset hazard driving most of the displacement in the country, putting an estimated 39,000 people at risk.
While this model projects future displacement risks, the IDMC also records new disaster displacements each year, for certain countries. In 2021, there were 18,000 new displacements in South Africa which, Hajžmanová explains, were attributed to disasters such as floods, as well as cyclones. When Our Burning Planet spoke to Hajžmanová on 29 April 2022, the IDMC had already recorded more than 32,000 displacements in the country.
“It’s now more than double what was already the record last year. So the trend is quite worrying,” she says.
Fighting fierce systems
As extreme weather events continue to intensify, the trends around climate migrants and the number of displaced persons are also expected to climb. Professor Colleen Vogel, a climatologist and adaptation and sustainability specialist at the University of the Witwatersrand, told Our Burning Planet that the weather phenomenon that hit KZN in April is referred to as a “cutoff low system” – a very fierce, low-pressure system that develops in the upper air and extends down to the surface.
The La Niña weather phenomenon – which is expected to become more frequent in a warmer world – helped to amplify the effects of the rainfall, says Vogel.
This cutoff low weather system, she says, causes so much damage because it tends to “hover” and is very slow-moving.
“These are not abnormal phenomena, these cutoff lows. They are regular features of our climate system, and they do tend to develop around this time of the year,” says Vogel, who explained that the April 2019 floods in KZN were caused by the same type of weather system.
The cutoff low system that hit KZN in April 2019 caused about 170mm of rain to fall within 24 hours. During that event, landslides and floods claimed the lives of 70 people in the province. In contrast, on 11 and 12 April 2022, parts of KZN received between 200mm and 400mm in 24 hours.
Asked about what role climate change played in the intensity of the cutoff low system, and about the frequency of these events in the future, Vogel explained: “It’s a bit tricky to say ‘absolutely’, if this is what’s going to happen in the future, but we do know collectively from the science that storms are getting stronger – whether they’re cutoff lows or just ordinary thunderstorms, and that is because they’re getting energised as a result of global warming… Whether we’re going to have similar ones to this one, I would say there is a high likelihood.”
Most of the displaced people Our Burning Planet spoke to in KZN, in areas including Tongaat and La Mercy to the north of Durban, Reservoir Hills and Inanda to the west and Danganya to the south, believed the disaster was linked to climate change. Some had grown up in the areas where their homes were destroyed, and said they had not witnessed rainfall as punishing and relentless as this.
Mbali Mbanda, from the Geneva Settlement in Inanda, told Our Burning Planet that a tree just above her house had slashed her home. When Our Burning Planet visited what had been her home, there were scattered household items, such as a bag of samp and clothing, buried under piles of mud.
“I think what happened is related to climate change because I was born here, and nothing like that has ever happened… The river capacity does increase when it rains but it has never been like this, this is the first time. That means this is something that will happen again and shows that the climate is changing,” Mbanda said.
Considering climate catastrophes
The possibility of future weather events, made more frequent and intense by climate change, weighs heavily on the minds of KZN flood victims. But foremost for them are factors such as safety and the means to relocate.
Nolubabalo Mayapi from Danganya, south of Durban, said the first signs she saw of the sudden landslides that wiped out all the homes and a church in her community, was earlier on 11 April.
Mayapi described how she had seen a crack in the road that her brother thought would be a growing danger in the years to come, unaware that the devastation that saw homes sink into the ground leaving only their roofs visible, was mere hours away.
“Going back there is very impossible!” Mayapi told Our Burning Planet at her displaced shelter, near a Shell garage on the N2 Highway. “No one can go back there. Even the ones whose houses didn’t sink were told to leave because they said that area is dangerous. At home, the house sank and then collapsed. But when you look at the place behind our place, where it was just a garden, there’s a huge hole now. There’s no way someone can go back there. If you go back there, you are digging your own grave.”
Mayapi is unemployed with three children and has 12 other family members with whom she stayed. She told Our Burning Planet that her home had been bought, and finding a new one in her circumstances would be a great challenge.
“Right now, it’s hard to consider [if I will think about extreme weather events when relocating] because at the end of the day we need places to stay. After we’ve recognised a place to stay we will have to buy it. Where we lived, it was bought and now we have to buy elsewhere. Right now, no one at home is working, so it’s very hard,” she says.
Delane Memela, from the Annet Drive settlement, echoed Mayapi’s concerns, saying he hoped no one would return to the area that now seemed unliveable owing to the flood’s destruction and the trauma residents had suffered.
“Everyone should leave here and go build elsewhere. This land is falling apart. When it rains, there’s landslides. There is the concern of where we will move to,” he said. “[Extreme weather events] are things we will be thinking about going forward when considering where we will live in the future. We also have to consider our children because those places can’t be too close to water. We have to think of a safe place.”
There are yet more worrying factors for flood victims, including proximity to job opportunities. This is particularly true for Geneva Settlement dweller Ntuthuko Mdlalose, who had been living in his newly built home for only three days when the floods demolished it. It had stood on the banks of a river that runs through the settlement.
“It depends where I find a place, but I will go wherever I can find somewhere to stay. It’s just that my job requires me to be here,” the 38-year-old said.
For some of the victims Our Burning Planet spoke to, moving came at a great cost that they could not even consider now, leaving them dependent on government help. For most, a safe place for themselves and their children was most important.
This reality was echoed by Tower, who said the costs associated with migrating are high, and a big concern are “trapped populations”, which arise when people do not have the means to get out of where they are.
“A lot of people can’t afford to move. And that’s not to say that the people who are moving are somehow wealthy… When people do move, they’re finally moving when they’re already stretched beyond their capacities. We have a lot of people getting into debt”, she says.
“People move when a situation becomes untenable; when you’ve [faced] several climate crises – when it’s affected your ability to live,” Tower said, adding that it was human nature to fight and see what one could withstand.
Both migration experts agreed that trends suggest migration occurs from rural to urban areas, as people move to obtain better access to services, receive aid, search for jobs and escape environmental risk. But climate displacement and migration are not driven by one factor, but are multifaceted, and as people gravitate towards cities they will also be drawn by their socioeconomic opportunities, said Hajžmanová.
“In the case of South Africa, what we see is more localised displacement – that people tend to stay very close to their origin of displacement; they go to evacuation centres and shelters and, as soon as they can, they actually prefer to return home.
“But, like in the recent KwaZulu-Natal floods, we see that a lot of displacement did happen in many urban areas themselves. So then, of course, the displacement is urbanised because we rarely see that people are displaced from urban to rural areas, that’s very rare.”
The influx of climate refugees into urban areas will place additional stress on services and infrastructure, added Hajžmanová.
“What we see in many places is that there’s not enough available housing for the arriving internally displaced people (IDPs) and therefore they’re forced to set up some sort of informal shelters in areas which are prone to disasters, where formal housing is not built.” This puts arriving IDPs at “high risk of secondary displacement, because when a disaster strikes in an urban centre, they are the first ones to get displaced because they live in unsafe houses in disaster-prone areas”.
The failure of the government to resolve the country’s longstanding and intractable housing crisis played a major role in the death and destruction caused by the floods. While the devastation was evident throughout the eThekwini metro, much of the destruction occurred in informal settlements in valleys, or in those that clung to the edge of hillsides.
Witnessing the destruction and devastation in the aftermath of the KZN floods made it clear that urgent policy intervention was necessary.
The City of eThekwini has a Durban Climate Action Plan established in 2019. In a nutshell, it acknowledges the changes and potential damage extreme weather events will have on eThekwini and puts in place measures to deal with climate change at a health, waste, environmental and water level, among others.
On flooding, the plan states: “Climate change predictions indicate that there is a high risk of more frequent and severe storms. It is expected that flooding will further increase, exacerbating existing infrastructural challenges, thus requiring the need for urgent response measures.”
It also raises issues such as urban migration increasing in areas prone to flooding, as well as challenges such as “ageing infrastructure can be compromised and easily impacted by the devastation of flooding”.
In response to these challenges, the City says in the plan that it will improve stormwater drainage systems, develop early warning systems, conduct projection runoffs and reduce the risk to development on floodplains, among other things.
The City has developed the plan but implementation seems to be lacking, along with action taken after the damage has been done. Mbulelo Baloyi, media liaison officer for the KZN MEC for human settlements, told Our Burning Planet: “No, there weren’t [measures taken to move people prior to the devastation], they were only moved afterwards.”
Hajžmanová said that in regions that are already experiencing more frequent and intense weather events, governments can start preparing by “providing better housing” to withstand these events, and by “moving people away from areas that [they] know will get flooded”.
He added that the South Africa Weather Service alerts the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs to extreme weather events and the department should then communicate the warning to people. The weather service had issued an orange level 9 warning, indicating a medium likelihood of severe impacts from the rains.
With plans in place and South Africa’s climate ambition quite high, Vogel said: “I do think we’re responding too slowly to these events. We should be ramping up stuff now really much faster.” She added that efforts should not be skewed towards mitigation but strike a balance with adaptation.
In the aftermath, displaced people across the province are being housed temporarily in community halls, religious buildings, schools and other facilities. Netty Gcaba and Bongani Manzeni, from the Pholani informal settlement in La Mercy on KZN’s north coast, are among 83 people who sought refuge in the La Mercy Community Hall after their homes were destroyed in the pounding rain.
It was a landslide that decimated Manzeni’s home and 19 others, which had clung to a hillside. When Our Burning Planet visited the site on 23 April, shack fragments speckled the slope. People’s belongings were buried under mud and sand.
“It was around 6pm and I was getting ready to go to bed, then I heard rocks falling,” Manzeni recalls. “I went to check outside and saw the neighbour’s house below me cave in and roll downhill, crashing into other houses. When I told another neighbour that the house had been destroyed, she said mine might survive. Within five minutes, my house also collapsed and slid downhill. I had gotten out.
“The rains seemed to be getting stronger and I waited at my neighbour’s home. We saw that the house might not make it so we headed to the local store (made of brick and mortar) until 9pm. There’s a garage near where my pastor stays and I slept there for the night. From the 11th until today, I have been in the hall with nothing but the clothes on my back.”
Manzeni said that if he could find a safe place to live, on a flat piece of land, then he would not worry when the rains came.
“The government needs to help us get out of there, and put us in a better place. It’s not easy for us to rebuild. Even if you rebuild, the land will move,” he said.
Baloyi said temporary housing units (TRUs) are being built for the 4,000 people whose homes were washed away. According to the media liaison officer, families have started moving out of the community and school halls and places of worship and into the TRUs.
“What has been our priority is to build temporary units so that we can relieve those people staying in community halls, churches and with relatives and neighbours. We started [building the TRUs] on the 22nd [of April]. 23-24 [April] it was raining and we couldn’t continue. We only resumed construction on Tuesday (26 April). Some of them were completed and some families moved in this weekend,” Baloyi said, adding that three houses are being built per day and they were expecting to have all those displaced in TRUs by June.
Those whose homes had been damaged – about 9,000 – would be given building material vouchers to redeem at hardware stores. As for a permanent solution, Baloyi said some land had been identified to build permanent Reconstruction and Development Programme homes. It had been assessed by geotechnicians while people were living in TRUs.
“So there was a challenge for people to be relocated there because we don’t want to put them away from their economic activities,” Baloyi said of state-owned enterprises that had offered their land on the outskirts of the eThekwini metro.
According to Hajžmanová, the IDMC recorded more than 2,100 displacements in KZN for the April 2019 flood period. “What’s interesting, is that these 2,100 people were still displaced as of September last year – so, one and a half years later they didn’t find any shelter, there was no alternative housing provided for them, and they were still living in temporary shelters in Durban mostly.”
She says there is concern about whether this group (2019 flood victims) was affected again during the most recent floods, which may have pushed them into secondary displacement. There is also the question of whether their housing needs will ever be addressed, in the aftermath of the most recent floods, in which so many others were displaced.
“They were actually specifically complaining of empty promises. They were saying they were promised new housing, that they were promised a lot of things, but actually they’re still there,” she said.
Manzeni said: “If I could just find a place to stay – it doesn’t matter where – I will go, just so I can live my life.” He was stabbed in the head by a robber when he was leaving a temporary job in 2001. It left him disabled and living on a monthly disability grant.
“I’m praying that the Lord will help me find a place better than where I was staying so that when I walk, I can walk fine, because sometimes I fall,” says Manzeni.
“It’s not easy to build a house with R1,800 – which is why I stayed in a shack. So if I could just find a two-bedroom house, I’d be happy.” DM/OBP
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