Throughout the world, every day, the effects of climate change are felt and seen. South Africa is no different. Parts of Eastern Cape are fast approaching day zero and KwaZulu-Natal was hit earlier this year by unprecedented floods. Although the floods affected everyone, it is women who suffer most because they must deal with the effects of the disaster itself and still care for their families.
The effects of the climate disaster in KwaZulu-Natal is similar to what was experienced when tropical Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi in March 2019. It was reported as the worst natural disaster to hit Southern Africa in at least two decades. In Mozambique, the cyclone left nearly two million people in need of humanitarian assistance. In Zimbabwe and Malawi, people were killed and displaced, with those based in climate change “hotspots” unable to return to their homes.
It was heartbreaking to hear about women walking long distances, with children on their backs, in search of food and other aid, many forced to sleep in long queues, as they waited for help. Consider for a moment that nearly 80 000 of the women affected by Cyclone Idai were pregnant. According to a United Nations Population Fund report, it is estimated that more than 43 000 women in flood-affected areas gave birth within six months of the disaster. One woman even delivered her baby from a tree. According to reports, after the storm was over, the difficulties grew. These included concerns that women and girls were being pressured to provide sex in exchange for aid.
One year after Cyclone Idai left its trail of destruction, it was reported that many people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi continued to live in makeshift shelters, leaving them vulnerable to future climate shocks. Because of inadequate climate response and limited support for those affected, the disaster also resulted in an influx of climate refugees, who have moved and continue moving to South Africa.
It is incorrectly assumed that climate change forces people to move within their own countries. Limited access to natural resources and an increased threat to livelihoods in their home countries — for instance, where drinking water has become too scarce, or where crops and livestock struggle to survive because conditions have become too hot and dry or too cold and wet — is the driving force for cross-border migration. The reality is that a large number of refugees coming to South Africa are climate refugees.
The influx of migrants has caused its own problems. Some places experience conflict with some groups promoting Afrophobic hate speech, using violence as a way to “clean up” their areasThese clashes have cost people their lives, which is avoidable if people are better informed about the climate crises. Women’s suffering is compounded by existing gender-based abuses.
As an environmental activist and peacebuilder, I want to encourage women to take up space on the ground and integrate training programmes to better respond to the effects of climate change and violence. We must learn together, from each other. For those in the eco and social justice spaces, we must continue our work with people and encourage non-violent dialogues that can lead to social cohesion. Education and empowerment programmes should serve to develop a knowledge base on climate change issues and the effect on climate refugees. Hopefully, this will improve social cohesion, raise awareness and come up with adaptation and mitigation plans on climate change.
At the same time, we also need to prepare ourselves to mitigate future disasters. The situation in KwaZulu-Natal will no doubt yield more issues in the aftermath of the floods. There have been public displays of anger. It is human to be angry in such a situation and we should be ready to handle the tensions that arise. Once the immediate needs are met, such as food and shelter, it is critical that we quickly broaden the focus to include interventions that protect women and girls from violence, in addition to improving people’s knowledge about climate change.
Sabina Taderera is a senior finance officer at Earthlife Africa in Johannesburg.