A WORD FROM THE CEO

Yolan Friedmann, EWT CEO

yolanf@ewt.org.za The recent Durban floods made history for all the wrong reasons and the devastation and mayhem caused shocks to thousands of people, our economy, and our environment. Much has been said, and there is almost no room to say much else if it weren’t for us needing to take stock of how a significant amount of the impact could have been prevented. And I don’t only mean addressing the complexity of reducing human-induced climate change, as the jury is still out if this was a climate change-related event. It is tricky to attribute extreme weather events to climate change anywhere, but more so in KwaZulu-Natal, where the lack of comprehensive long-term rainfall records makes systematic climate analysis close to impossible. And given that extreme weather events do occur, to attribute them all to climate change requires much more robust record-keeping and scientific evaluation.

What we do know is that over the 24-hours on 11 April, more than 300 mm of rain fell over KZN, around 75% of South Africa’s annual precipitation. These rains were caused by a cold-weather system that seldom reaches South Africa but often causes large-scale destruction in Mozambique. Much of the havoc was unavoidable, but let’s focus on what should not have happened. Mass landslides triggered by destabilised ridges and embankments due to the removal of indigenous vegetation and land clearing for development could have been reduced, and some even prevented entirely. Stormwater drains that were clogged with litter or overgrown weeds could have cleared roads and infrastructure of lethal water levels, and well-maintained infrastructure dealing with sewage management and water provision may have withstood the floods or been offline for less time, thus reducing a human healthcare catastrophe. Fast-moving debris that killed people and destroyed homes, in many cases resulted from illegal dumping and poor construction, and the tons of plastic, waste and rubble that now litters beaches and riverbanks will be pillars paying tribute to the role of humans in this not-so-natural disaster after all.

Developers who insist on flouting environmental regulations to build into flood lines, strip vegetation, and ignore natural seams should be held accountable for at least a portion of the losses; regulators who sign off on these developments should shoulder a portion, too; and municipalities that ignore spatial planning principles and laws to authorise rampant urban creep should be held accountable for the balance. The lack of well-planned and properly constructed and maintained infrastructure along with reliable service delivery to the most vulnerable communities, combined with the overcrowded inhabitation by millions of vulnerable people in shacks built on steep hillsides, riverbanks and in valleys, played a big role in the increased death toll from the floods and mudslides.

As the floodwaters began to subside, stories of triumph and heroism emerged to bear testimony to human resilience and the spirit of survival. People came together to support, assist, and care for one another. The reality is that this spirit of common purpose, Ubuntu, and mutual dependence must prevail if we are to prevent similar devastation in the future. We may not be able to control weather systems and extreme rainfall, but we MUST prepare for it by taking heed of our reliance on intact habitats and our susceptibility to the power of nature; our vulnerability to natural processes that we cannot control and, therefore our need to protect the natural systems designed to protect us from those very events. The KZN floods demonstrated the dire need for entrenching sustainability into our development plans and paying due regard to the integration of intact natural systems into spatial planning as opposed to the removal thereof as an obstacle to progress. The adherence to environmental regulations, and the promotion of climate education, robust monitoring, functional early warning systems, maintained and functioning infrastructure, and equitable social development should all underpin the rebuilding of KZN with resilience as the cornerstone of all rebuilding and planning in this province and its cities which are arguably the most vulnerable to weather events and climate change going forward. Without this, rest assured that this WILL happen again.

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