Damage to a house in Westville, Durban from the April floods Photo – Nokukhanya Sithole
Durban – The recent floods have resulted in the the loss of over four hundred lives. Government has called for a National State of Disaster. Some experts believe the catastrophic floods are the result of climate change.
Weather stations recorded an unprecedented amount of rainfall. The amount of rain which fell on Monday was equal to about 75% of South Africa’s average annual precipitation. In 2019, 165mm fell and in April, 108mm was recorded. Compare this to 300mm of rain that fell on 11 April, and it is a significant increase.
Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, a climate expert, believes that one event cannot point to climate change.
“We cannot attribute a single event to climate change scientifically. What we can attribute is you know to weather and natural weather variability. Unless we have done the necessary calculations to determine the level of attribution then we can statistically confirm whether it was a climate change event or not but in the current case we cannot directly attribute it to climate change.”
This shouldn’t distract people from the fact that climate has changed over the past few years. If anything, the increased rainfall between 2019 and 2022 proves that. Mabhaudhi believes that indicators like the weather increasing by a degree or decreasing by a degree are clear indications of climate change.
“Of course, not all of them come with the level of catastrophe and disaster as the recent floods but we are experiencing climate change. It’s underway, it’s ongoing and we have to be more aware [of it].”
Risk of floods increase
As climate change continues to get worse, the risk for more severe weather, such as the recent the floods, increases.
“There is an increased risk of weather extremes be they droughts, or be they floods, or be it extreme hot days which is another risk that we must deal with. We have to be prepared for those risks.”
For something to be climate change, it has to be sustained over several seasons or around a ten-year period, said Mabhaudhi. Then more tests will need to be done to accurately say that the current weather is climate change.
“Then we would have to run it through climate change models to be able to separate what we attribute to natural weather variability because weather has always been variable and what we then attribute to the forced climate change scenarios. What we do understand from climate change is that the natural variability of weather is going to increase.”
This natural variability of weather can and is being experienced by us. From the winters being a little too hot to the summer being cold, these are indicators that the common man can make out which indicates climate change.
Devastating consequences of floods
Weather changing drastically or even a little can bring about devastating consequences. The floods are just one example of this. The flood itself brought devastation to people’s homes and lives. It destroyed infrastructure and resulted in petrol stations not having any fuel as there was no means to get it to them. There are consequences during the event and after it has taken place.
The shifts in the biomes or our natural weather can have long term effects on the availability of food and water, said Mabhaudhi.
“What that means is that areas that are suitable for the production of certain crops are going to shift. In some cases, they are going to expand, in some cases they are going to decrease. It also means in certain areas we are going to have less water and the demand for the water is going to outstrip the available resources.”
These changes can lead people to go out looking for the resources they need for survival. Be it jobs, water, or preferable climate for their crops. In some cases, we may see people moving onto land that is not for residential purposes, said Mabhaudhi.
It will also become easier for diseases to be spread and appear in new areas that they wouldn’t have been able to survive in, explained Mabhaudhi.
“There’s also an increased incidence of diseases as it gets warmer and wetter in certain areas. The natural habitats for certain factors of diseases find it easier to now cross certain boundaries that they could not cross before because of the weather regions.”
South Africa, baing a part of Southern Africa which is known to have elevated temperatures, means an increase in the temperature can have a negative impact on crop production. Food scarcity in South Africa is an extreme issue. Research shows that over 23% of households experienced hunger in 2020. Those numbers are suspected to have increased given the continuation of the pandemic.
“The impacts are going to be felt mostly through water as we are seeing now. Floods and droughts have the same impact on agriculture and food security because they are both destructive. Too little water is destructive, excess water is also destructive. The impacts and implications on food security are quite significant in the region that we are in.”
Early warning is vital
Having this knowledge is good but to ensure no loss of life and property occur, there has to be an early warning system in place. According to Mabhaudhi, the South African Weather Service is working on a big project “to update and develop an integrated climate driven multi hazard early warning system”.
While early warnings may help, the main challenge is resource mobilisation. Mabhaudhi says that early warnings in the case of this flood were given, response was not prompt.
“There’s also the need to build capacity where the response must come from. There’s the need for integrated planning and development so that people are not residing in areas that put them at risk of flooding. The South African Weather Service did issue a warning. Level five for the floods. The challenge, however, is the warning is issued at a national level, it moves to the provincial level, where they move to the district level.”
The chances of it then reaching the people it needs to reach is very low. At the same time, Mabhaudhi believes there is a lack of communication and understanding from people living in affected areas to understand what to do when warnings come up and how to evacuate effectively.
Investment in disaster management must be increased as it could help reduce the damage and loss of life that hazardous weather sustains.
“In a lot of municipalities, you find maybe one or two officials in disaster management who are also playing other roles. They are not really dedicated to the disaster management function. We need to capacitate that area from a human resource perspective. Also from an equipment perspective and from a training perspective. They should be able to engage with the information, translate it, and respond in time at the very local levels.”
The information should be communicated in such a way that ordinary people understand it and are able to respond effectively