The new settlement, a tight cluster of squat houses made of drywall, was built without electricity and nestled between a noisy highway and a river. Officials acknowledged the risk of flooding but promised residents that within three months they would be moved to permanent homes, recalled Themba Lushaba, who was resettled with his girlfriend.
Thirteen years and four devastating floods later, Lushaba, 34, remains in the settlement, still waiting for this permanent home. The most recent floods, which followed torrential rains last week, were the worst yet. The water rose above his navel in pitch blackness, forcing him and his neighbors to take refuge in a distant field, shivering under umbrellas all night.
South Africa suffered one of the worst natural disasters in its history when last week’s storms in the Durban region killed at least 448 people, destroyed thousands of homes and left behind shocking scenes of devastation . Shipping containers have been knocked over like Lego blocks on a major highway. Vacation homes, their support pillars washed away, hung on the mud-streaked hillsides. Tin shack houses were buried.
Some scientists attribute the intensity of the storms to climate change. But the disaster brought to light an often overlooked reality of combating extreme weather events: protecting people is as much about tackling social issues as it is about environmental issues.
The failure of government leaders in South Africa to resolve a long-running housing crisis – fueled by poverty, unemployment and inequality – played a major role in the high death toll from last week’s storms, said activists and academics.
“A lot of times, not just in South Africa but also in many other developing countries, there just isn’t the money, there isn’t the expertise and there isn’t the government’s willingness to invest properly in protecting the poorest in society,” said Jasper Knight, professor of physical geography at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Much of the destruction occurred in makeshift settlements made up of fragile structures that were swept away. Poor South Africans often settle in these communities because they are close to employment opportunities that do not exist in their remote hometowns. Many also cannot afford more stable permanent housing. So they end up building tin shacks wherever they can find land, usually in places unsuitable for housing.
In the case of Durban and its surroundings, these places are often in low valleys next to rivers or on the soft ground of steep slopes – among the most dangerous places in the event of violent rainstorms, as they did a week ago.
Even many planned communities across the region occupy environmentally dangerous land, in part the legacy of the apartheid government forcing the black majority to live in neglected areas.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in an address to the nation on Monday night, acknowledged fatal shortcomings in government housing policy.
The process of recovery from the devastation, he said, “will also involve the construction of houses in suitably located areas and measures to protect the inhabitants of these areas against such adverse weather events in the future”.
While heavy rain is common at this time of year, Durban is one of many cities on Africa’s southeast coast that has seen an increase in rainfall that some scientists attribute to climate change. In just two days, eThekwini, the municipality that includes Durban and surrounding communities, saw a month’s worth of rainfall, said scientists from the University of Cape Town.
The wet weather came as the region was still drying out from destructive rains and floods in 2017 and 2019 – and hundreds of residents displaced by the floods at the time were still languishing in transit camps. In 2019, more than 70 people were killed.
Rebuilding after 2017 has been slowed by a complicated process of securing government contracts to build new homes, said Mbulelo Baloyi, spokesman for the housing department of KwaZulu-Natal, the province that includes Durban. When areas still recovering from those floods were razed again in 2019, the national government stepped in and the process was streamlined, Baloyi said.
The government is already erecting modest prefabricated houses for transit camps for some of the nearly 40,000 people who have been displaced by this year’s floods.
In 2018, the City of Durban identified the growth of informal settlements as a significant challenge in the city’s response to climate change. And after the 2019 floods, the city presented a plan calling for creating more renewable energy sources, reducing car travel and making informal settlements climate-resilient.
Despite these commitments, city officials have still not done enough to address the devastating consequences of climate change through economic and social development, said Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi, professor of climate, water and food systems at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Creating employment opportunities in various parts of the country could alleviate the desperation that drives some people to stay in informal settlements, which are often the only places they can find accommodation in crowded cities where most of the jobs, he said.
Lushaba’s family owns a compound in Uzumbe, a rural community an hour south of Durban, with three rondavels next to a four-room house made of concrete blocks.
But with no job prospects in the area, he left in 2008 to move into a tin shack in Durban, where his mother had lived since 1996 to do domestic work. Like so many others in a country where the unemployment rate now exceeds 35%, Lushaba has been unable to find stable employment. He occasionally works security in a nearby community.
In 2009, Lushaba was resettled when local leaders used a provincial law to remove the shack settlements from sight of World Cup visitors. He is desperate for a job so he can rent permanent accommodation and he loses hope that the government will fulfill its commitment to provide him with one.
“They just tell us that we have to wait our turn,” he said. “The government always makes a lot of promises but never comes back to do it.”
The land under the Lushaba transit camp in Isipingo township was once a buffer wetland for the nearby Sipingo River, he said. The low box-like structures have a maze of muddy alleyways between them. Black wires carrying unauthorized electrical connections that residents plugged in themselves are splayed across the sidewalk.
In 2011, less than two years after moving into the camp, it flooded for the first time, Lushaba said. It happened again in 2017, 2019 and now last week. Each time, the inhabitants go through the same ritual: they head for higher ground, let the water calm down, then have to rake the mud from their one-room houses and take stock of the goods that can be saved and those to be thrown away. outside.
Scenes like this unfolded across the region this week. In Inanda township, north of Durban, in a neighborhood of concrete block houses under a collapsed bridge, a pile of mud, broken trees, mattresses and other furniture were all that remained of a house where four family members are believed to have been buried.
On Tuesday, Lushaba and his girlfriend laid a light blue mattress on a sofa they were drying outside their house. Shoes, a fan and other items were drying on the corrugated iron roof of their home.
“It hurts me to stay here,” he said. “It’s dirty everywhere.”
Ravi Pillay, the provincial executive in charge of economic development, said Lushaba’s grievances were understandable.
“I think it was badly located, in a bit low area,” he said of the Isipingo transit camp. “At that time, there was not the kind of flood risk assessment that we have now.”
Some wonder, however, whether government officials now have the capacity to act with the urgency needed.
About a quarter of eThekwini’s population lives in informal settlements, according to Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Local planning authorities have been unable to meet the growing demand for housing, she wrote in an email in response to questions.
“The port city is heading for a very bleak and catastrophic future,” she said, “if measures are not put in place to reduce the impacts of flooding in the future.”
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