/ 20 December 1996

KwaZulu-Natal’s flood fears rise

Ann Eveleth

With the first anniversary of last year’s Christmas Day floods in Pietermaritzburg looming, much remains to be done to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that cost 169 lives and left nearly 6 000 families homeless.

And the National Disaster Relief Fund, which has already spent its R14,7-million budget for the year, will have to approach Cabinet for extra relief to cover any disasters which may strike anywhere in the country before its 1997-98 budget kicks in.

Local civic organisations and environmental groups say there is a mood of anger and frustration among the victims of the floods who have not been compensated.

‘We’re getting lots of complaints from people who want to know where the money has gone. They feel the money is there but it’s being wasted on consultants,’ Zandile Ndawonde, co-ordinator for the Greater Edendale Environmental Network (Green), told the Mail & Guardian.

‘We put together a joint action committee after the January 1995 floods to look at the problem, but the authorities weren’t really interested until the December 1995 floods came and close to 200 people died. Now it is a year later and some people are still living in tents. Some babies have been born in those tents and some have learnt to walk since they moved there.’

Emily Zuma (21) said she has lived in a tent in Slangspruit with five family members, including her two- and five-year-old brothers since the floods washed away her home last Christmas: ‘My 15-year-old sister Olga drowned in that flood. Now we are still living in a tent and we are wondering when we will get a house,’ she said.

Ndawonde said the local communities in the area had begun to take the environmental issues seriously after the floods and understood that settlement and overcrowding on the flood plain of the Msunduzi River could result in further deaths and also ecological degradation.

But he argued that the problem went beyond settlement. ‘Part of the problem is that the river has been ‘canalised’ over the years to provide more recreational facilities for whites and to make way for the Duzi (canoe) marathon.’

Ndawonde believes this interference in the flow of the river through the construction of canals running into Pietermaritzburg had created unnecessary flood zones by collecting large reservoirs of water in the Edendale Valley and that ‘this has now resulted in black deaths’.

Dave a’Bear, the project manager for the University of Natal’s Institute of Natural Resources said growing informal settlements along the flood plain had contributed to the extent of the disaster. New land uses were being sought to avoid a repeat.

‘The rainfall was so heavy last Christmas that there would have been a flood regardless of the condition of the catchments, but the question is whether people should have died in it. This is a planning issue,’ he added.

The institute, which was commissioned by the Transitional Local Council to study solutions to the flooding problem, has now joined forces with Greens and other community leaders to find alternative land uses to prevent new informal settlements mushrooming in the disaster zone.

These included reforestation of the river’s banks, as well as cultivation of community gardens and the construction of sport grounds.

But while victims of the river believe little has been done to prevent the disaster from recurring, it has become clear that funds to compensate them have been used up.

Pieter van Schalkwyk, secretary of the National Disaster Relief Fund, said this week the fund, which offers emergency relief to victims of all national disasters, had spent most its budget for the year on flood relief in KwaZulu-Natal.

‘We paid out a R5-million lump sum for the Vaal Reef mining disaster earlier this year, but the remaining R9,7-million went to KwaZulu-Natal after floods in Pietermaritzburg, Weenen, Estcourt, Ladysmith, Bergville and Glencoe.’

News about the fund’s depletion emerged after last week’s announcement that more than 5 000 families affected by the Black Christmas floods would receive no compensation for their losses. Hundreds of victims are also soon to be forced out of the emergency shelters they have occupied for the past year.

The Pietermaritzburg Transitional Local Council ‘ which has drawn relief money for flood victims from the fund and other donations ‘ said no further payments would be made to ‘second-priority victims’ of the flood. The R189140 remaining in the city’s relief coffers would only pay for three more months of tent and toilet hire for ‘first-priority’ victims still awaiting housing.

About 707 families whose homes were washed away completely when the Msunduzi River overflowed its banks last December 25 had been compensated to the tune of R1293225.

‘More than 600 new homes have either been built or are under construction to compensate first-priority victims who lost their homes,’ said the Jeff Makhetha, the council’s official in charge of the flood relief programme.

‘But unfortunately we have no money left to compensate the second-priority victims who may have lost rooms on their houses or suffered damage to carpets and other property.’