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South Africa declares national emergency as flood toll crosses 440

(Banner Image: An aerial view of the flooding at the Air Force Base in Durban. Image courtesy of South African National Defence Force.)

(Banner Image: An aerial view of the flooding at the Air Force Base in Durban. Image courtesy of South African National Defence Force.)

  • Flooding and landslides following record-breaking rainfall caused hundreds of deaths and displaced 40,000 people in KwaZulu-Natal province.
  • The damage is centered around Durban, South Africa’s third most populous city, which is particularly vulnerable to flash floods.
  • In the coming days, 10,0000 military troops will join search and rescue operations and provide aid to the thousands of people impacted by the tragedy.
  • President Cyril Ramaphosa said the floods are a reminder of how a changing climate is fueling more extreme weather. However, scientists are still investigating the role of anthropogenic climate change in this disaster.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national emergency on April 18 as the death toll from floods in KwaZulu-Natal province climbed over 440, with dozens of people still missing.

The area around the port city of Durban, the country’s third most populous city, received more than 300 mm of rainfall in 24 hours between April 11 and 12. This intensity of precipitation usually occurs during tropical cyclones.

Landslides and flash floods destroyed over 4,000 houses and damaged thousands of others. An estimated 40,000 people have been left homeless. “The scale of the floods is almost without precedent in South Africa,” Francois Engelbrecht, who heads the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told Mongabay.

Public infrastructure like schools, health care facilities and transport networks also suffered massive damage. More than 600 schools were left in ruins. Many residents in the province who escaped the fury of the floods are now grappling with a lack of clean drinking water and power.

The most devastation occurred in the eThekwini metro area, which includes Durban, and the districts of iLembe, Ugu, King Cetshwayo and uMgungundlovu. Parts of Eastern Cape province also witnessed heavy downpours and flooding.

Operations at Durban port, one of the busiest in Africa, were also hit with key access roads leading to the port being blocked. Ramaphosa cited the economic fallout for the country from the disruptions at the port as a reason for declaring a national emergency.

The South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are leading search and rescue efforts. This week 10,0000 military troops will join the operations. They will bolster the search for around 50 people who are still missing and help get aid to victims, according to SANDF.

A member of the South African National Defence Force deployed to assist with search and rescue in KwaZulu-Natal province. Image courtesy of South African National Defence Force.

“There are complex drivers behind our weather patterns, and rising global temperatures have disrupted these systems,” Greenpeace campaigner Thandile Chinyavanhu said in a prepared statement. “Climate change is unfolding violently before our eyes. It is not imminent – it is happening now.”

Within 24 hours, parts of KwaZulu-Natal received rainfall equivalent to three-quarters of what South Africa, as a whole, gets on average in an entire year. Extreme rainfall does occur in this section of South Africa’s eastern coast. A weather system called “cut-off low,” which moves from west to east over South Africa, brings powerful rainstorms to this region.

“Although cut-off lows and intense thunderstorms are part of the natural climate system of eastern South Africa, there is evidence that climate change is causing these events to occur more frequently and at a greater intensity than in the past,” Engelbrecht said.

Three years ago, 165 mm of rain fell in Durban over 24 hours, causing 71 deaths and displacing over 1000 people. This time the death toll is much higher and the damage more severe.

“Climate models are consistently projecting that further increases in intense rainfall events can be expected in the eastern parts of South Africa for as long as global warming continues,”  Engelbrecht, one of the lead authors of IPCC’s sixth assessment report, said. “The occurrence of two devastating flood events in the Durban region within three years is a clear fingerprint of climate change impacting on South Africa.”

A UN report on climate impacts noted that one in a hundred-year floods are expected to occur multiple times a year by 2050. However, drawing a link between specific episodes and broader climatic phenomena is fraught. So is teasing out the role of natural climate variability and anthropogenic factors.

In this instance, it is particularly challenging because of a lack of reliable and comprehensive rainfall data going back decades. Despite the uncertainty, President Ramaphosa said in his address on April 18 that the flooding is a reminder of how a changing climate is fueling more extreme weather.

Umlazi township in KwaZulu-Natal, which is located south-west of Durban. Image courtesy of the Government of KwaZulu-Natal.
Umlazi township located southwest of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province. Image courtesy of the Government of KwaZulu-Natal.

However, some citizens took to social media to blame weak urban planning and the ailing infrastructure for making the situation worse. In and around Durban, floods are especially deadly because of construction on hilly terrain and entire communities living in areas below the flood line.

Chinyavanhu argued that the president needs to do more than declare a national emergency in response to the floods. “Greenpeace Africa demands President Ramaphosa declare a climate emergency to unlock resources to implement contingency plans to mitigate further harm and enable South Africans to adapt to our quickly changing climate,” she said.

Banner image: Aerial view of the flooding at the Air Force Base in Durban. Image courtesy of South African National Defence Force.

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