“In permitting man, Nature has committed much more than a mistake in her calculations: a crime against herself” (Emil Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born).
What we can learn and appreciate now from the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) floods is that climate is not just a natural phenomenon, but the distribution of risk and its impacts is a reflection of the state of politics, governance and the capacity of society to build a coherent responsiveness to such a disaster.
It is not the first time that KZN has been hit with natural events such as this, even if they were minor in comparison, and they will not be the last.
Since December 2010, floods in KZN have caused 141 fatalities and about $51-million in damage. The province has had floods almost annually since 2016, caused by storms and heavy rainfall over a short period of time. During the “Easter floods” of April 2019, about 85 people died due to heavy storms. Let’s not forget tornadoes and tropical cyclones in these severe weather events.
We may want to insult nature, but perhaps we should be insulting ourselves. The recent rain bomb that resulted in a deluge of mud, uprooted trees, collapsing cliffs, floating concrete, corpses and carcases, reveals that nothing can stand in the way of catastrophic events when they come.
The eThekwini municipality does have a cupboard full of plans and has been féted around the world as a champion city ready for climate change. There are plans, of course – but perhaps not real ones.
The South African Reserve Bank calls events such as these as “green swans”; sort of expected and not so unexpected – expected in the sense we know some day it will come and unexpected because we would not know on exactly which day or at what time.
As much as weather people try to be Nostradamus, they have not come close. All the weather modelling and inputting of climate-impact scenarios still render scientific predictions good-as-possible guesses, at best.
Green swans will arise more and more in the human sphere and the lesson is that even if we cannot predict the exact date and time, we ought to plan in advance. Plans that are executable, real stuff, are a better buffer against events such as these given how dramatic they can be and how responsiveness strategies work.
The KZN floods come almost a year after the riots in this very unhappy part of South Africa. All of this on the crest of a wave of the Covid-19 variants.
One shock after another leaves long-term scars – KZN will see demographic change, long-lasting psychological trauma and will perhaps continue to reel from dystopian politics on the back of a slow and grinding economic recovery.
Ilan Noy, one of the foremost economists on natural disasters, notes that on the whole natural disasters are social phenomena and we tend to have the habit of keeping them far off our minds. These are events – which seemingly are no longer once-in-a-lifetime – that Nassim Taleb would call “fat tail events”: events that are so removed from daily life and risk assessments because they are rare, but when they occur, quite devastating.
Our mistake is to not take them seriously and not prepare for them. In a networked society, risks and devastation spread with lighting speed. A networked society is also a risk-amplifying society.
Noy argues that they are social phenomena because we simply have not put enough effort into building reflexivity and resilience in human systems that need to withstand these shocks. Reflexivity is a mind-set or cognitive issue – the first is not to live in denial and in the second place resilience measures must be part of local politics and we should ensure there is a routine practice of incorporating these measures as part of economic and development plans.
Resilience is a way to handle extreme weather by preparing for the worst of outcomes. This requires enough of a buffer to cope and bounce back when we are hit with unexpected shocks.
Resilience includes testing the responsiveness of plans – like fire sprinklers working when there is a fire (remember what happened at a famous place in the beloved Mother City?). Building reserve capacity into supply chains, financial support, medical services, essential goods, power systems and water supplies that can all be brought online fairly quickly to save lives – it is the ethical and humane part of resilience planning.
When a metropole’s governance is mired in political intrigue and the incentive is to syphon off resources for aggrandisement and patronage, there is bound to be myopic regard for the future. Often underinvestment is a product of the lack of concern, and even any interest in the future.
There are perhaps more funds syphoned off for nefarious goals as there is cost of damage due to extreme weather.
This is a case of vulgar governance – care not for the now nor the tomorrow. It is why KZN residents are angry. Even the worry of post-disaster relief thieving tells you what a dim view is held by citizens and some national authorities over the capacity of local politicians and officials to do good.
It is easier to blame nature and obfuscate the fact that in the first place the disaster’s impact was always a social phenomenon: from belligerent cognitive dissonance, to political short-termism, to not showing any form of capacity and regard for events such as these.
We, of course, know it is nature; this is undeniable, but the distribution and magnification of impact are all a consequence of social production. The higher the magnification of death and physical disaster is a sure sign of the desocialisation and depoliticisation of the importance of climate impacts. You may say it is a lack of planning, but planning starts with the awareness of science and in the end the generation of political awareness for extreme events, given how recurrent they are in KZN.
You can extend the logic, that this is not nature doing things to us, by looking more closer at the underlying causes: if increases in greenhouse gases are the cause of the rise in temperature and increased precipitation then, well, the KZN event is in itself not natural but human-induced – an anthropogenic (environmental pollutants as a result of human activity) bomb over humanity.
A recent three-part Public Broadcasting Service series, a Frontline documentary on big oil and gas titled “The Power of Big Oil”, draws our attention to the scientific work of none other than Exxon in the late 1970s – the largest oil and gas company at the time, and whose scientists knew that greenhouse gases cause climate change. Their evidence was subverted by the oil industry’s hired guns and libertarian ideologues whose main aim was to delay action and cast doubt on the science through a platform called, ironically, the Global Climate Coalition.
The patter at international negotiations and the trickle of resources going to the most vulnerable does little to address the problem – the most victimised by extreme weather, the poorest and most under-resourced countries, are left to fend for themselves and having to adapt to the anthropogenic bomb with little means to do so.
We have to make the culprits pay for this – and this is why the loss and damage issue needs to be internationally politicised given that COP27 is going to be held in Africa.
Vulnerable countries will also have to find ways to hardwire climate resilience into their development plans and do less of those things that contribute to the anthropogenic bombs. If anything, these melancholic events hold the lesson for all of us that we simply cannot do things as they were done before, and they ought to persuade us to break from the norm.
Participatory processes in integrated local development plans ought to examine measures and responsiveness of local authorities to disasters and whether budgets have been set – this is the first layer in the democratisation of disaster and resilience plans. We have the tools. We need to increase the accountability.
The KZN floods demonstrate how a troublesome and toxic stew of bad politics and governance, endless official deceit interconnected with human-made and natural catastrophes, puts to waste any disaster preparedness plans.
It is always tragic that the only people citizens can trust in all this damnation are themselves and the Gift of the Givers.
Clean governance and focused officials in partnership with citizen groups makes for strong resilience to extreme weather. What is a natural phenomenon needs to be socialised. We need to organise and Arespond to recurrent phenomena. DM