Housing crisis increases death toll from flooding in South Africa

Housing crisis increases death toll from flooding in South Africa

DURBAN, South Africa – In 2009, as officials in the port city of Durban prepared to host next year’s football World Cup, they moved hundreds of residents from their shacks near the city center to a flood-prone field. south of the city.

The new settlement, a cluster of squat houses made of drywall, was built without electricity and tucked between a noisy road and a river. Authorities recognized 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 that permanent home. The most recent floods, which followed last week’s torrential rains, were the worst so far. The water rushed past his navel in the pitch black, 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, as last week’s storms in the Durban area killed at least 448 people, destroyed thousands of homes and left behind shocking scenes of devastation. The shipping containers were toppled like Legos on a major highway. Vacation homes, their supporting pillars dragged along, dangled from mud-streaked slopes. Tin houses were buried.

Some scientists attribute the intensity of storms to climate change. But the catastrophe underscored an often-overlooked reality of the fight against extreme weather: protecting people is as much about tackling social issues as it is about the environment.

The failure of government leaders in South Africa to resolve a long-standing housing crisis – fueled by poverty, unemployment and inequality – played a major role in the high death toll in last week’s storms, activists and academics said.

“Often, not only in South Africa, but also in many other developing countries, there is simply no money, no experience and no willingness on the part of the government to invest properly in protecting the poorest in society,” he said. said Jasper Knight, professor of physical geography at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Much of the destruction took place in makeshift settlements of fragile structures that were washed away. Poor South Africans often settle in these communities because they are close to job opportunities that do not exist in their distant hometowns. Many also cannot afford more stable, permanent housing. So they end up building tin shacks wherever they find land, usually in places unsuitable for housing.

In the case of Durban and the surrounding area, these locations are usually in low valleys next to rivers or in the loose land of steep slopes – among the most dangerous places to be when heavy rain storms occur, as happened a week ago.

Even many planned communities across the region occupy environmentally unsafe land, in part the legacy of the apartheid government, forcing the black majority to live in neglected areas.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, during a speech to the nation on Monday night, acknowledged the fatal shortcomings of the government’s housing policy.

The process of recovering from the devastation, he said, “will also involve the construction of houses in suitably located areas and measures to protect the residents of these areas from adverse weather events in the future.”

While heavy rains are common at this time of year, Durban is one of several cities on the southeastern coast of Africa that have seen an increase in rainfall that some scientists attribute to climate change. In just two days, eThekwini, a municipality that includes Durban and surrounding communities, experienced a month’s worth of rain, scientists at the University of Cape Town said.

This rainy weather came when the region was still drying out from destructive rains and flooding in 2017 and 2019 — and while hundreds of residents displaced by the floods at the time were still languishing in transit camps. In 2019, more than 70 people were killed.

Reconstruction after 2017 was delayed by a complicated process of getting government contracts to build new homes, said Mbulelo Baloyi, a spokesperson for the housing department in KwaZulu-Natal, a province that includes Durban. When areas that were still recovering from these floods were razed again in 2019, the national government stepped in and the process was streamlined, Baloyi said.

The government is already building modest prefab houses for transit camps for some of the roughly 40,000 people 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 the creation of more renewable energy sources, reducing car transport and making informal settlements climate-resilient.

Despite these commitments, city officials have not yet 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 job 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 jobs are, he said.

Lushaba’s family owns a complex in Uzumbe, a rural community an hour south of Durban, with three rondavels next to a four-room cinder-block house.

But with no job prospects in the area, he left in 2008 to move to a tin shack in Durban, where his mother had lived since 1996 to do housework. Like so many people in a country where the unemployment rate is now above 35%, Lushaba has been unable to find a steady job. He occasionally works as a security guard in a nearby community.

In 2009, Lushaba was resettled when local leaders used a provincial law to remove shack settlements from view of World Cup visitors. He is desperate for a job so he can rent a permanent home and is losing hope that the government will deliver on its commitment to provide one.

“They just tell us to wait our turn,” he said. “The government is always making a lot of promises, but never fulfilling them again.”

The land under the Lushaba transit camp in Isipingo municipality was once a wetland for the neighboring Rio Sipingo, he said. The low, box-like structures have a maze of muddy alleys between them. Black wires carrying unauthorized power connections that residents plugged in for themselves are strewn across the sidewalk.

In 2011, two years after moving to the countryside, it flooded for the first time, Lushaba said. It happened again in 2017 and 2019, and now last week. Each time, the residents follow the same ritual: they head to higher ground, let the water go down, then have to clean the mud from their one-room houses and take stock of what belongings can be kept and what must be thrown out.

Scenes like this were happening all over the area this week. In Inanda Township, north of Durban, in a neighborhood of cinder 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 members are believed to have died. of the family were buried.

On Tuesday, Lushaba and his girlfriend placed a pale blue mattress on top of a couch they were drying in front of their house. Shoes, a fan and other items were drying on top of the corrugated tin roof of his house.

“It hurts me to stay here,” he said. “It’s all dirty.”

Ravi Pillay, the provincial executive in charge of economic development, said Lushaba’s complaints were understandable.

“I think it was poorly located in a somewhat low-lying area,” he said of the Isipingo transit camp. “Back then there wasn’t the kind of flood risk assessment that we have now.”

Some wonder, however, whether government officials, even now, have the capacity to act with the necessary urgency.

About a quarter of eThekwini’s population lives in informal settlements, according to Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Local planning officials have been unable to keep up with the growing demand for housing, she wrote in an email in response to questions.

“The port city is heading towards a very dismal and catastrophic future,” she said, “if measures are not implemented to reduce the impacts of floods in the future.”

John Eligon and Zanele Mji reported from Durban, South Africa, and Lynsey Chutel from Johannesburg.

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