OPINION | The hidden side of the KwaZulu-Natal floods

It is paradoxical to talk of “the heavens opening”, when 36 hours of torrential rain can cause such destruction and loss of human life as it did in KwaZulu-Natal recently. I have not witnessed such hard and prolonged rainfall in Pietermaritzburg since Christmas 1995, when entire suburbs were cut off for three days and a Mercedes-Benz was found lodged in the branch of a tree on the Maritzburg College sports fields. 

The last time cars were seen floating down the N2 between Durban and the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast was in October 2017. That was a violent flash flood that lasted just a few hours, but totally undermined the highway’s stormwater drainage system. On this occasion, as in 1995, the sheer volume of water in the subsurface has resulted in massive landslides, as well as groundwater flooding. Within three days the official count was 395 dead, 8 039 houses partially destroyed and 3 937 houses totally destroyed. On 19 April a national state of disaster was declared, and R1-billion has been pledged to rebuild or repair damaged homes that are not insured and provide other flood relief measures. 

It is hard to imagine how the statistics could be so pinpoint accurate. The people most severely affected by such severe weather events live in informal settlements and rural areas, with little or no infrastructure and protection from the elements. A shack fire will affect a clearly defined area within an informal settlement, but it is the households with the least means, physically and financially, to provide for their shelter that are the most adversely affected by storm damage. 

Informal settlements have little or no vehicle access to facilitate the identification of those households who are in greatest need, and for the delivery of building materials. Rural settlements are scattered over wide areas, which would take weeks rather than days to survey — and, again, many umuzi are hundreds of metres away from the nearest access road. This represents the hidden side of the floods. 

There is no pattern to these severe weather events. That is the nature of the effects of climate change — ever unpredictable — but cycles of drought and flooding will increasingly become more severe, and storms will be more violent, as a result of the acceleration in global warming.

Until the floods once again reminded us of our human frailty on this Earth, the focus on the past few months has been on our government securing R130-billion in foreign aid to reduce our reliance on coal. That will bring our reliance on coal as a fuel source down from 80% to 65%. Meanwhile, the world’s inability to contain the acceleration in global warming means that our vulnerability to severe weather events will inevitably increase. A 2% increase in global warming will translate into an unbearable 6% to 7% in our region.

Roads, bridges and other infrastructure can be rebuilt after storm damage. Public infrastructure can be rebuilt through taxes and property rates. Private homes and internal infrastructure to, for example, sectional title schemes, can generally rely on insurance. But it is people in our rural areas and informal settlements that have the least infrastructure to start with, the lowest levels of income and investment in property, and the least resilience to shocks, who suffer the most. 

The only help they receive when disaster strikes is in the form of blankets and food parcels. Some may be lucky to receive a tent — even in the cold, wet winters of the Western Cape — and even fewer may get a temporary house through the Emergency Assistance Programme. For most, it is a process of surviving today and rebuilding tomorrow. Every summer it rains. Except, of course, when we have a La Niña drought cycle.

Our country’s climate change strategy is seriously imbalanced. It speaks of mitigation on the one hand, and adaptation on the other. We can secure funding to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, while oil companies are eyeing the prospects of drilling for gas off our Eastern Cape shores and fracking the interior. What message are we sending? 

We have as a country secured paltry amounts in external funding toward climate change adaptation measures. Most of it has been in agricultural and tertiary institutions focusing on food security. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) was accredited by the global Adaptation Fund as our national implementing entity. It has supported a few pilot projects around the country, but has no capacity to upscale, or influence to roll out learning where it matters — the disaster management components of the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs and local municipalities.

In 2007, the first Disaster Management Amendment Bill proposed that all municipalities have a comprehensive, proactive disaster management plan. At the KwaZulu-Natal legislature hearing on the bill, the South African Local Government Association objected to the imposition of yet another burden on local government that was already struggling to meet its legal obligations, blaming inadequate funding. 

They were right. Planning for disaster management is a huge task, and funding it — when many municipalities are battling to fill potholes and plug water leaks — was arguably unrealistic. Even though the Spatial Land Use Management Act requires municipalities, inter alia, to identify land for housing needs, very few municipalities have a viable housing sector plan, and one that includes provision for emergency housing. That emergency housing, very often in the form of “temporary resettlement areas” or transit camps, becomes permanent — because the necessity to deal with a chronic housing need is reduced. 

From my own experience of working on one of the Sanbi adaptation pilot projects, informal housing can be strengthened to withstand all but the severest storms for about one-tenth of the cost of a subsidised new house. That is a huge improvement on zero investment. Rural infrastructure can be made more resilient, using local materials, with just a little know-how. I recently ran a workshop for traditional leaders at the regional office of the department of co-operate governance and traditional affairs on climate-proofing human settlements. They came away feeling “empowered” that so much could be done with so few resources, and just a little indigenous knowledge that our formal learning institutions are unable to capture and disseminate. 

Poor people are naturally resilient. They have to be creative and economical with whatever resources come to hand to survive. A mass roll-out of training in climate-resilient building and food production would make it all the more viable for households in rural areas and informal settlements to be prepared for the next storm. Or drought.

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Cameron Brisbane
Cameron Brisbane is executive director of the Built Environment Support Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

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