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Durban floods are a massive wake-up call: A deadly combination of climate change, corruption and ineptitude

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Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971.

Weather events like this week’s Durban floods are just the beginning, and freak weather phenomena such as this will become much more commonplace. Perhaps the most crucial question is how do we combat this?

Death, devastation and destruction are some of the descriptors for the apocalyptic scenes in Durban and surrounding areas this week. The unprecedented floods have damaged infrastructure and roads, washed away a temple, sunk vehicles, uprooted homes, trapped citizens and claimed scores and scores of lives.

Images of people stranded on their roofs awaiting rescue were a grim reminder of the impact of climate change. This has not been an isolated event. Over the last few months, southern Africa has had to weather extreme weather conditions, including cyclones, tropical storms and flooding. It is estimated that just this year alone and based on early estimates from Durban, almost 300 people have died in the region. As an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released this week appropriately states, “It’s do or die”.

In 2020, a study by Kirezci and colleagues in Scientific Reports estimated that without coastal protection or adaptation, in other words, without decisive action, there will be an increase of 48% of the world’s land area, 52% of the global population and 46% of global assets at risk of flooding by 2100. Additionally, 68% of the global coastal area flooded will be caused by tide and storm events, with 32% due to projected regional sea-level rise.

We are certainly starting to see a manifestation of this. The numbers are staggering. According to the South African Weather Service, parts of Durban saw nearly five times the highest recorded rainfall. On average, 24-hour falls exceeding 200mm — a figure usually associated with tropical cyclones. What is apparent and what many experts are arguing is that this is just the beginning, and freak weather phenomena such as this will become much more commonplace. Perhaps the most crucial question is how do we combat this?

In 2019, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries announced a national plan for climate change adaptation. One facet of this plan is disaster preparedness, yet as the outcry this week has demonstrated, this was notably absent.

It is apparent that when we discuss structural reforms in the country, climate change-related mitigation and adaptation strategies have to be included. Mitigation is a human intervention required to curb the impact of climate change. Adaptation entails making changes to live with the effects of climate change. These are possibly not mutually exclusive endeavours, and the sweet spot likely exists in a combination of mitigation and adaptation.

Here, for example, early warning systems, risk-informed land planning, finance instruments and social protection should be emphasised. Structural interventions such as levees or dikes (in other words, floodbanks) that run parallel to rivers can be put in place — particularly in the more vulnerable areas such as Durban.

There are even nature-based solutions such as widening flood plains or protecting areas that can be implemented. In fact, as IPCC Working Group III co-chairperson Priyadarshi Shukla argues, “having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behaviour can result in a 40 to 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This offers significant untapped potential.” This, of course, all requires funding and political will.

As we relook at our national response to climate change, at the fore of the conversation has to be flood lines. The risks of flooding in rivers and flood plains are expressed as flood lines. The National Water Act necessitates these flood lines to be displayed on plans for developments, indicating the highest level that a flood could attain every 100 years. All buildings should be above this flood line to avoid the danger of flooding.

Yet, one of the greatest dangers is that people still often build on these flood lines, particularly in times of drought when these lines run dry. This is, in part, a legacy of urbanisation. According to the Parliamentary Group (PMG), 63% of South Africans live in urban areas, and this will rise to 71% by 2030. By 2050, 80% of the people will be living in urban areas. In particular, Durban is particularly vulnerable to flood-related problems because of its large urban population and the lack of developable land.

As demonstrated this week, residential and commercial development has largely taken place in flood-prone areas, placing lives and property at risk. Additionally, informal settlements have formed in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding. There is substantial research indicating which areas are particularly vulnerable, yet little has been done to heed these warnings or educate the populations.

Furthermore, there are concerns about the drainage systems in the city. Even in normal weather conditions, roads are often flooded because of blocked or damaged drains. Poorly maintained stormwater drainage has compounded many of the issues in the city. In fact, the Durban Chamber of Commerce has called for the government to undertake a “serious review” of the stormwater drainage system along with the road networks and share their disaster management plans, including infrastructure maintenance and development.

In theory, this should all fall to municipalities, where planning has to mitigate the impact of urbanisation. Municipalities are fundamentally incapable of keeping up with the swift pace of urbanisation. In fact, the exponential growth of informal settlements and the unwillingness of the metros to accept them as a permanent reality has resulted in a slow response to the service delivery needs of communities in our largest metros.

It is also apparent that corruption and mismanagement remain a concern. For instance, the mismanagement and gaps in the delivery of water and sanitation in the municipality of eThekwini are considered a growing human rights crisis. This ranges from theft and vandalism to aged and worn-out infrastructure, to budget constraints and a lack of planning and implementation.

In 2021, a Corruption Watch report indicated that eThekwini was among the top five municipalities in the country plagued by allegations of corruption, with an estimated 166 cases reported. Here, we need to ensure that we have sound and decisive leaders at the fore. Appointments in municipalities should be based on expertise and experience rather than connections.

What is apparent is that this is our new reality — albeit alarming and frightening — and we have to make the right decisions in order to curb the impact. This week has been a demonstration of climate change in action and this is but the tip of the iceberg.

As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan remarked in 2014, “on climate change, we often don’t fully appreciate that it is a problem. We think it is a problem waiting to happen.”

Almost a decade later, we are seeing this problem tangibly and viscerally unfold in front of us and we have to confront it or we face a reality far worse than the events of this week. DM

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  • Climate change is a complex global issue, much harder to effect change at a local level. What we can change is our response to it. Unfortunately I don’t have any faith in the current political leadership to be able to organise an appropriate response. They will not go willingly, citizens need to remove them and vote in people who will be able to get the basics right. Good town planning, building and maintaining solid infrastructure and making sure that interventions to provide safe and convenient housing to the poorest of our people are actually executed rather than being empty election promises by those who regard government work as a door to self-enrichment.

  • Good article but, as so often happens, the way numbers/percentages are presented can be misleading. I’m sure the author means that the area of the world currently at risk of flooding will be 48% greater by 2100. But the way its written, it can easily be read as ‘48% of the world’s land area will be at risk of flooding’ — which is patently absurd but can easily become a meme. Also a lesson to the sub-editor to consider whether it needs amending.

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