/ 6 September 2008

Tempest in a teapot

Capetonians have a seemingly endless capacity for being astonished by the weather, which is strange, as we have a lot of it.

Each year winter storms smash trees, tear roofs off and compound the misery of shanty dwellers on the Cape Flats who live not only below the breadline but often below the waterline. Each year snow blankets the mountains, stormwater drains overflow and earthworks collapse.

And each year the front-page photographs are much the same: colossal swells off Seapoint and Kalk Bay, insouciant kids gambolling in the storm wrack, downed trees sealing off verdant suburbs.

When the combination of wind and pushing tide is just right, there will be a picture of a Bakoven bungalow bust open by the waves or a coastal road disappearing under tons of sand.

It is an annual geography lesson: here is Antarctica, here are thousands of miles of howling ocean and here is our town, dangling off the edge of the continent like an appendix, hopelessly exposed. We seem incapable of learning.

Reacting to a weekend of spectacularly foul weather our implacable new premier, Lynne Brown, declared that government should take global climate change into account in its planning.

As no doubt should all of us. But warmer, higher seas had nothing to do with the Northwester that tore my loquat tree in half, doused ”beach communities” and flooded informal settlements. It was, as the meteorologists have to explain on talk radio every year, a pretty normal storm.

What the government needs to plan for is winter. And they seem to find it tough.

In the bleak midwinter of 2005, for example, the National Intelligence Agency ran an investigation into the roots of protests by Cape Flats residents angry at their seemingly endless wait for decent housing.

The spooks needn’t have bothered — a call to the weather office would have sufficed. People whose makeshift homes were waist-deep in water don’t have much need of agents provocateurs.

It is not just the government that has a dose of cognitive dissonance.

Living right on the edge of the sea, in R30-million worth of glass and Indonesian hardwood is a wonderful thing, until the edge moves, as it will from time to time.

Of course, all the data tells us that it will move decisively inland in the coming decades, even if it hasn’t yet.

Buyers priced out of the best coastal suburbs will tell you that they are heeding Brown’s advice and shopping for seaview sites a few kilometres inland.

But we are forgetful people. The sun is shining. The council has swept the streets and the beaches — and the waiting list for houses out in the marshlands just grows longer.