KwaZulu-Natal has once again been hit hard by devastating weather-related disasters, claiming the lives of more than 60 people. The tragic incidents are a stark reminder of the urgent need for proactive measures to address the challenges posed by inclement weather.
The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, through the Provincial Disaster Management Centre, had launched a series of summer disaster awareness campaigns before the rainy season commenced.
The campaigns were aimed at alerting communities to the imminent dangers of inclement weather, including lightning, flooding and road accidents resulting from slippery road surfaces.
Our collaborative efforts with NGOs, such as the South African Red Cross, Al-Imdaad Foundation for Disaster, IPSS Medical Rescue and Reaction Unit South Africa, have proved to be invaluable.
Together, we formed a united front to reach out to distressed communities and provide relief. The search and rescue teams, led by the South African Police Service K9 unit, successfully located many of the missing individuals, offering much-needed closure to numerous families.
With forecasts predicting that the rains are not over, we appeal to our communities, traditional leaders and municipalities to work closely with us in disaster prevention and preparedness.
The number of fatalities could have been reduced if we had taken proactive measures. In the alerts we issued, we advised motorists against attempting to cross swollen streams and rivers, as this has tragically claimed many lives that could have been spared.
In rural areas, we have witnessed countless incidents where individuals drowned or were swept away while trying to navigate swollen rivers. The incidents underscore our complacency regarding the dangers posed by heavy rains.
We are committed to intensifying our awareness campaigns and urging our communities to heed the alerts, understanding the severe impact that heavy rains can have on our lives.
The issue of illegal structures built in floodplains is exacerbating the effects of the floods, especially in urban areas. We implore our communities to refrain from constructing shacks along riverbanks, as this can have dire consequences, as seen in the tragic events in Zwelisha, Verulam, north of Durban where a grandmother and her grandchild lost their lives.
Without a doubt, the area in which their structures are built put lives at risk, many could have also perished as the nearby river overflowed to the settlements on the riverbanks and collapsed bridges. This showed the risk of building on floodplain areas, which we strongly discourage.
In areas such as Msinga, under Umzinyathi District, we have had to evacuate residents when their homes and rental flats were inundated by the overflowing Uthukela River.
Many of the incidents could have been prevented if we had followed the safety tips and been more disaster-wise when we were building our homes. We urge our communities and leaders to work with us to minimise the impact of the disasters by taking into account the issues we are raising.
Over the past years, we faced severe droughts that led people to settle in areas where water was once scarce. However, with the heavy rains, the areas are prone to flooding, endangering the lives of those who have built homes there.
We have initiated a consultation process with affected families to explore relocation options and prevent future disasters. We encourage communities to seek guidance from relevant authorities who understand the geography of the areas when building homes. Municipalities have demarcated certain zones as no-go areas to ensure our safety.
Additionally, our department is implementing programmes to mitigate the impacts of severe weather patterns. We are installing lightning conductors in areas prone to lightning strikes, such as Uthukela District and Umzinyathi, where we tragically lost eight lives. We are committed to expanding the programmes to cover other high-risk regions.
Acknowledging the challenges with our infrastructure’s capacity to handle heavy rainfall, we are empowering municipalities to incorporate infrastructure maintenance into their plans, to be funded through municipal infrastructure grants. The proactive approach will help municipalities expand their drainage systems to be more resilient during heavy rains.
It is also worth noting that the issue of littering plays a significant role in town flooding. There are objects that clog our drainage systems, resulting in blockages and subsequent flooding. Eradicating the problem requires a collective effort. We must remain vigilant in the face of heavy rains.
By working together, we can significantly reduce the number of fatalities and avoid exposing ourselves to danger by building in floodplains, attempting to cross swollen rivers, or driving into flooded bridges. Let us take responsibility for our safety and the well-being of our communities.
Bongiwe Sithole-Moloi is the MEC for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs and convenor of the ANC Women’s League’s provincial task team in KwaZulu-Natal.