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Thousands hit by floods across SA, more weekend downpours predicted

Thousands hit by floods across SA, more weekend downpours predicted
Flooding in De Doorns in the Western Cape swept away 50 homes on Monday,12 December. Widespread rainfall across the country has affected thousands of residents. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

Thousands of people around the country have been affected by floods after heavy rains washed away homes and infrastructure. Scientists warn that these extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent and more intense as a result of climate change.

Dark clouds began gathering over De Doorns on Monday afternoon, says Estara Ratisebe, a 54-year-old resident.

“When the water came, it had the smell of a fire… we couldn’t walk because the roads were full of water,” she says, recalling the flooding that swept away dozens of her neighbours’ homes and left her own waterlogged.

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Heavy rain and flooding hit De Doorns on Monday, 12 December. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

“This is a very painful story and it was a sad thing to see,” says Oscar Ralehoko, councillor for ward three of the Breede Valley Municipality.

The 1,500 people affected by the heavy rains in De Doorns are joined by other communities across the country that also experienced flooding, says Ali Sablay, Western Cape project manager of Gift of the Givers.

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Gift of the Givers teams are on the ground in De Doorns, providing urgent humanitarian assistance including hot meals, water, blankets, mattresses and toiletry supplies. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

“It is Christmas time and many of these families have lost everything,” says Sablay, but the primary concern right now is that “they are expecting more rain”.

After the deluge

Heavy rain is expected to persist in the coming days over most of the country, with the risk of further flooding in places, warns the South African Weather Service.

The central and eastern parts of the country have already experienced heavy rains and floods in recent weeks since the beginning of the summer rainfall season. As a result, the ground in many areas remains saturated and rivers are running full.

“Under such conditions, a flash flood could be triggered quite easily, and the public is therefore strongly urged to be extra vigilant,” warns the Weather Service.

Homes swept away in the Western Cape

Gift of the Givers is assisting communities in Paarl, Worcester, Wellington, Ceres, De Doorns and Nomzamo by rolling out relief aid, says Sablay.

About 250 residents of Nomzamo, 250 residents of Worcester and 350 people in Paarl have been affected by the flooding. Assessments to determine the extent of the damage are ongoing in other affected locations.

Monday’s rainfall in Paarl was the highest recorded in the past 20 years, and the flash floods turned roadways into rivers.

“Gift of the Givers teams are on the ground providing urgent humanitarian assistance… hot meals, water, blankets, mattresses and toiletry packs as well,” says Sablay. 

Crumbling roads in Johannesburg 

The Western Cape is not alone, as areas of Johannesburg — affected by severe storms last week — have been warned to brace for more rain. 

The flooding of the Jukskei River swept 15 people, including a baby girl, to their deaths earlier this month during a baptism in the river that had been swollen by recent rains. In Soweto, 65 passengers were rescued from a bus that had become stranded in floodwaters last week.

“It’s expected that rains will persist in the coming days,” says Isaac Mangena, spokesperson for City Power.

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Damage caused by heavy rains in Protea Glen in Soweto on 10 December 2022. Residents in parts of Gauteng have experienced flooded homes and destroyed roads after the heavy rains wreaked havoc. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

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The impact of heavy rains and flooding across Mofolo South in Soweto on 9 December 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fanie Mahuntsi)

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Damage caused by heavy rains in Protea Glen, Soweto on 10 December 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

“Our response time may also be affected due to flooded roads and trenches, especially in Roodepoort, Lenasia and Hursthill, among others,” adds Mangena. More electrical outages and infrastructure damage is likely.

Hendrik Potgieter Road has been closed due to a section collapsing as a result of flood damage, says Mpho Phalatse, Executive Mayor of the City of Johannesburg.

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The Hendrik Potgieter Road on the West Rand was closed on Tuesday, 13 December due to a section collapsing after flood damage, says Mpho Phalatse, Executive Mayor of the City of Johannesburg. (Photo: Supplied)

Humanitarian and clean-up operations continue across Joburg, and “while we find ourselves in an emergency, I have been encouraged by the work being done by city and entity officials as well as councillors to restore order and service delivery operations in Joburg”, says Phalatse. 

Storms more frequent, more intense 

Currently, both Gauteng and the Eastern Cape have been placed under warning level 2 by the SA Weather Service due to severe thunderstorms and disruptive rains.

These events are likely to keep occurring, says Francois Engelbrecht, Director of Global Change at Wits University. Climate change is causing the earth to warm, and a warmer atmosphere is one that can hold more water vapour.

“It is becoming easier and easier for storm systems to produce large quantities of rainfall, and that is the main reason there is more rainfall in these storms than before,” says Engelbrecht.

This warming of the atmosphere is also allowing storms to become more intense.

“What we are observing, almost across the planet, is an increase in the number of intense storm systems and an increase in the number of heavy rainfall events,” says Engelbrecht, “and South Africa is no exception.” 

There has been a clear increase in intense rainfall events in summer rainfall regions, says Engelbrecht. These events are worsened by the fact that the large amounts of rainfall are linked to the La Niña season in South Africa. 

Southern Africa typically experiences higher rainfall at these times, but what is unusual is that this is the third summer in a row with a La Niña event.

“That has only happened three times since 1950,” says Engelbrecht. 

Climate change is creating more volatile climate systems, says Engelbrecht. “And everyone needs to prepare to deal with that.”

Keep out of troubled waters

The South African Government News Agency recommends keeping safe by monitoring rising water levels and evacuating to safer, higher ground. Keep your phone charged and stay alerted to any weather warnings.

Residents are also urged to avoid crossing flooded roads or bridges, and trying to walk or swim through fast-flowing water or crossing any rivers. DM/OBP

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