/ 29 September 2023

South Africa needs to be better prepared for flooding

Flooding In Ethembeni Informal Settlement
Disaster: Flooding in Ethembeni informal settlement (above) in Khayelitsha on the Cape Flats in June this year. This week strong winds and heavy rain battered vast areas of the Western Cape, damaging infrastructure. Photo: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images

In recent years South Africa has been hit by a number of floods. Given that we were in a La Ninã weather pattern, which usually brings more rain, it should really be no surprise. Climate change is making these events harsher and more prolonged. 

In the past two years, almost every province experienced floods. This past week saw the Western Cape battered by rain, wind and floods. A combination of storm surges associated with low-pressure weather systems, strong onshore winds causing huge waves and the storm coinciding with two high tides (seasonal and monthly) was noted as the reason for these floods. 

But that’s not all the Western Cape had to face in recent times. The region had floods in June and two weeks ago huge waves wiped out cars and infrastructure — and now it’s flooding again. About eight people died during these events

About 450 people died in the 2022 KwaZulu-Natal floods. In Gauteng there have been many times homes on river banks have been destroyed and people have lost their lives. 

Of the deaths in the Western Cape, some were people living in informal settlements who were electrocuted when power lines touched the water they were in. 

As a result of the housing issues in the country, these informal settlements are often in places that are vulnerable to damage from flooding and mudslides — as was the case in KwaZulu-Natal. These areas also don’t have adequate drainage and the homes are made with improper materials. 

It’s also likely that people in these areas don’t receive adequate communications and warnings about flooding.

Extreme weather events invariably end up affecting the poor; people in informal settlements are hit the hardest. In this week’s flooding in the Western Cape, people who had set up their homes near power lines paid the price. 

For leaders trying to deal with these types of incidents, it must be tough. Despite issuing warnings and having first responders go to the scene, people still die. 

Overall, communications about imminent dangerous weather are issued in time and on the correct channels. But communications are not always enough. 

In a previous Mail & Guardian article, journalist Sheree Bega spoke to a climate expert who explained that despite warnings for Cyclone Idai — one of the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect Africa and the Southern Hemisphere — which also hit Beira in Mozambique, many people living in informal settlements chose to remain there. 

The expert wondered if this was because of a lack of trust in weather forecasts, concern about leaving their livelihoods and property or a religious belief. He also suggested there might be the feeling that people have that “this won’t happen to me” — a denialist attitude.

Generally flood warnings such as those ahead of the recent one in Cape Town are published all over social media, as well as on the radio and television media. The South African Weather Service, for example, took to its social media accounts to alert people of the warning level and what that meant. 

In terms of communication, I’m not sure more could have been done. 

Perhaps the next step would have been to move people to safer, higher areas. But again the issue of trust would come in, and people may be reluctant to leave their property behind. 

Many studies point to how people choose to wait and see how bad it is before making a decision. They often wait until the storm is quite close to assess for themselves if it will, in fact, be as bad as they have been warned it will be. 

The government website lists steps one can take in these situations. They include staying away from low-lying areas, not crossing bridges and roads if water is flowing over them, and staying vigilant and monitoring where water is flowing. 

It is crucial to move to higher ground when hints of flooding happen. People must be better at taking the warnings seriously. If possible, all power outlets in a home should be switched off. 

There are other things that can be done as well. 

Wetlands are a way of storing water and releasing it safely. Carefully constructing or restoring wetlands is a crucial way to deal with floods. 

Many other countries in the world at risk of flooding have taken steps to mitigate the damage. 

These include the Netherlands and Japan.. 

Some of the steps they’ve taken are to build sluices and barriers. The Netherlands has also widened rivers and used dunes, dams and surge barriers to protect the coast in the event of a storm. 

Japan has also spent a lot of money on engineering to deal with floods during the typhoon season. This includes sinkholes, water discharge tunnels and water capture technology. All these efforts collect water and discharge it safely away from people. 

South Africa should seriously consider spending on new technology, restoration and better flood management, especially if the past two years are anything to go by. We need ways to deal with floods especially since we have so many informal settlements and vulnerable people are most at risk.