Defend Truth

Opinionista

When the water came for us – KwaZulu-Natal’s month from hell could become the new normal

mm

Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

There is clearly an emerging pattern of increased extreme weather events in southern Africa and the southwest Indian Ocean islands, so political and social actors have to adjust quickly to this new reality. A number of key priority actions have to be taken.

Residents of eThekwini will remember April 2022 for a long time. Starting on Saturday, 9 April, heavy rain pummelled the city and on Sunday night, eThekwini received more than 300mm of rain in 24 hours.

The rains continued pounding the province into the following weekend. According to Nasa’s Earth Observatory, the highest rainfall totals (on 11 April) were recorded in Margate (311mm), Mount Edgecombe (307mm), and Durban North (301mm). Other areas that did not receive the same amount but still took a heavy pounding include KwaMashu, Amanzimtoti, KwaDukuza, Umlazi and Umdloti.

When the rains started, there was screaming all across Durban as some residents jumped out of bed either to avoid being swept away by floodwaters or to salvage a few documents and prized possessions.

Rainwater swept away roads, bridges, powerlines and entire apartment buildings. On the N2 highway near Isipingo, the force of the flowing water picked up more than 1,000 shipping containers as if they were mere featherweight empty beer cans and pushed them in the general direction of the ocean, causing an epic container pile-up. They were only stopped by a bridge about 100m away.

In Durban, shacks and even much more solid structures collapsed like a house of cards when a series of mudslides were set off as the ground became saturated. Those who live on unstable hillsides and floodplains are mostly poor and unemployed and they were hit hardest.

On the Umdloti waterfront, sections of two multimillion-rand apartment buildings collapsed under the weight of mudslides. The drone footage has since been watched millions of times. The mud spilled into lifts and underground parking areas, making most of the apartments uninhabitable for many days.

By Easter Monday the rains had damaged more than 13,500 houses and destroyed 4,000. More homes were destroyed in nearby uMzinyathi. Ethekwini had not witnessed a natural disaster of this magnitude since it was founded.

KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala announced that the devastating floods had claimed 435 lives and a further 63 people remained unaccounted for. More than 40,000 people had been left homeless. Fifteen people were found later and reunited with their families.

On 11 May, Sipho Hlomuka, KZN’s MEC for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, said the damage to the province’s infrastructure stood at more than R25-billion. Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu announced that 35 coastal health facilities had been damaged by the floods, 80% of which were salvageable.

But the rains were not done with KZN, and on 21 May, they returned. Although less intense, this episode claimed one life, swept away roads and caused mudslides in a number of neighbourhoods, notably Umdloti where several multimillion-rand Surfside apartment buildings collapsed. The R25-billion bill has since gone up by at least R5-billion and will rise further.

Stunned residents have been surveying the damage for weeks, not knowing where they will get help to rebuild their lives. Many South Africans are either not insured or just barely insured for a small fraction of what their properties are worth. Although civil society, non-governmental and faith-based organisations have launched fundraisers for the healing and rebuilding process, it is clear that it will not be enough to repair or rebuild 14,000 homes. Some residents have cleaned and patched up their partly damaged homes and moved right back in because they do not know where else to go.

On 24 May, Hlomuka announced that the 48 people still missing following the April floods were presumed dead, taking the toll to 484.

The climate change factor

In the hours after the flooding, President Cyril Ramaphosa visited Durban and declared that “this disaster is part of climate change. It is telling us that climate change is serious. It is here.”

Weeks later, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana too declared: “What happened in Durban was climate change.”

A public inquest began in the aftermath of the deluge and many South Africans have been asking why the South African Weather Service did not predict that the rains would be more serious than usual. In fact, it had seen rain coming, but not quite the deluge of the scope and scale of 11 April. A few days before the rains, the weather service had informed the public to expect heavy rains. On 12 April, one day after the biggest rainfall of the week, it raised the danger alert to orange level nine for eThekwini and Ugu, indicating potentially severe impacts, including loss of life.

Cutoff low systems typically bring heavy rains to this part of the country between summer and autumn. In fact, the province recently witnessed two episodes of flooding – in October 2017 when 108mm fell in one day, and again in April 2019 when it received 165mm.

So, is this the new normal for KZN? In January 2022, Professor Andrew Green, head of the Marine Geology Research Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and a team of scientists published an article in the journal Nature Geoscience which stated that “at present, tropical storms are usually confined to central Mozambique, but renewed ocean warming because of climate change could once again allow them to travel south, with potentially disastrous implications for cities like Maputo, Durban and Richards Bay”.

In what seems to confirm this theory, the Mozambique Channel and the southwest Indian Ocean islands have seen a particularly active and bruising 2022 storm season. In January, Tropical Storm Ana flooded communities in Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Madagascar, causing major damage.

A few weeks later, on 5 and 6 February, Tropical Cyclone Batsirai tore through Madagascar and parts of Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, destroying or damaging more than 100,000 homes and claiming more than 150 lives. It downed powerlines in many parts of Réunion and Madagascar and almost wiped out the city of Mananjary in the latter. Batsirai was soon followed by Tropical Storm Dumako (16 February) and Tropical Cyclone Emnati (23 February). All of this occurred before the Durban floods.

When the rain came to Durban in April 2022, Tropical Storm Issa had moved just off the coast of KZN, and it is likely that it exacerbated the rainfall.

At least 600,000 people have been permanently or temporarily displaced as a result of tropical storms and cyclones in 2022, and more than 1,000 lives have been lost.

Adapting to the new normal

There is clearly an emerging pattern of increased extreme weather events in southern Africa and the southwest Indian Ocean islands, so political and social actors have to adjust quickly to this new reality. A number of key priority actions have to be taken.

First, predicting weather patterns is not always a straightforward affair. The weather service needs to create a broad international partnership in order to improve its weather forecasting capability. It has to collaborate with more meteorological centres both inside and outside the country. It should also develop closer ties with media houses and local government authorities to give people information in real-time. This goes for all the countries in the sub-region too. South Africa has already signed partnership agreements with Madagascar, for example, and more countries should do the same.

Second, national and provincial governments must enforce stricter rules for where people build. There must be monitoring to ensure people do not build on unstable hillsides or in flood-prone basins. Finance Minister Godongwana rightly pointed out in an interview with the SABC that it is rather difficult to tell a desperate person not to build a shack in the only place where they can find available land. This highlights the need to fast-track housing and land reform projects to ensure desperate people do not resort to building in disaster-prone areas.

Third, the IPCC has warned many times that we are witnessing an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These warnings have been echoed by the UN Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization.

We must view all the climate crises around the world (extreme heat on the Indian subcontinent; floods in Belgium and Germany; tropical storms in the southwest Indian Ocean islands; hot and dry spells in Australia; the heat dome on the North American west coast; drought in Madagascar and the Horn of Africa, Europe and America; unpredictable precipitation everywhere, etc) from a holistic perspective. The world needs to work together to cap warming below 1.5°C before it gets worse.

Fourth, the KZN government should revisit its crisis management preparedness. It should rewrite and rehearse its disaster playbook. The province has suffered four major crises in a very short time (the KwaHlathi “diamond prospecting” chaos; the 9-18 July 2021 riots which claimed 258 lives in the province; the Covid-19 pandemic; and the April-May 2022 floods). Political and social actors in KZN, and elsewhere in the subregion for that matter, should live with the assumption that the next crisis is only a few hours away.

Finally, Durban and the rest of South Africa need to weatherise homes and public infrastructure. This will take time and a lot of money. KZN needs to review how it builds its roads and bridges and manages its drainage systems. Floodwater drainage systems must be inspected frequently to ensure they are not clogged with grass, plastic and debris. Homes should not be built in disaster-prone areas. DM

 

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 2

  • “Floodwater drainage systems must be inspected frequently to ensure they are not clogged with grass, plastic and debris. Homes should not be built in disaster-prone areas.” Basic, basic stuff. Around the country roads are flooded with even minor rains because the drains are clogged. The blame lies fair and square with the municipalities who couldn’t care less. As I have pointed out previously the “go to” in Africa is to do no maintenance so that there is an opportunity for bribes when the infrastructure has to be demolished and more bribes and corruption when new infrastructure is built.

  • Venezuela -The coastal area of Vargas State has long been subject to mudslides and flooding. Deposits preserved on the alluvial fan deltas here show that geologically similar catastrophes have occurred with regularity since prehistoric times…. The Vargas tragedy was a natural disaster that occurred in Vargas State, Venezuela on 14–16 December 1999, when torrential rains caused flash floods and debris flows that killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed thousands of homes, and led to the complete collapse of the state’s infrastructure. According to relief workers, the neighborhood of Los Corales was buried under 3 metres (9.8 ft) of mud and a high percentage of homes were simply swept into the ocean. Entire towns including Cerro Grande and Carmen de Uria completely disappeared. As much as 10% of the population of Vargas died during the event. Natal is not alone. In 2002 I ran through the area with our International running group, when working in VZLA, the destruction was devastating and depressing. Building towns in the wrong place is stupid and at that time Chavez also did stupid things with humanitarian help from USA at that time. Lessons learnt?

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted