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Our take: Stop being surprised by climate change, SA

“One of the worst weather storms in the history of our country.” That’s how this week’s flooding in KwaZulu-Natal has been described – and, as climate change worsens, South Africa will almost certainly face worse.

Months worth of rainfall fell in days, causing billions of rands worth of damage, according to the provincial government. Roads and bridges collapsed, houses washed away, cars were submerged; electricity, water supply and even some cellphone towers were affected. Durban’s port – the largest and busiest container hub in sub-Saharan Africa – was forced to close. 

Most devastatingly, more than 300 people have died. Informal settlements have been hit the hardest. 

As AFP put it: “South Africa’s neighbours suffer such natural disasters from tropical storms almost every year, but Africa’s most industrialised country has been largely shielded from the storms that form over the Indian Ocean.”

So what happened this time? This was no seasonal tropical storm. The heavy rains were caused by a weather system called a cut-off low, which accounted for cold and wet conditions throughout much of the country recently. But when these storms reached the warmer and more humid climate in KZN, it was a literal recipe for disaster. 😔 Rain deluged the beleaguered province, which is still recovering from massive unrest and looting last July. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa, after visiting the flood-stricken areas yesterday, said: “We no longer can postpone what we need to do… to deal with climate change.” He’s right, but late to the party. Scientists have long warned that climate change is fuelling extreme weather events. A recent study even warned of heavier than usual rainfall specifically in southern Africa. 

The severe damage is also a result of years of underspending on the maintenance of infrastructure like stormwater and drainage systems, while failing to resolve the inequality literally built into apartheid spatial planning. Economist and development activist Sifiso Skenjana has written previously about the enormous cost of weather events to SA’s economy and people. This week he pointed out that just 9% of KZN’s disaster management budget was allocated to disaster risk reduction and capacity building; the bulk (78%) was earmarked for relief efforts. 

It doesn’t take a genius to see that such budgeting is reactive and unhelpful. Government has now declared the floods a provincial disaster, unlocking hundreds of millions of rands in aid from Treasury. The next step is to start planning before another extreme weather event hits. 

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 11 April  2022. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.