Durban floods “most catastrophic natural disaster” to ever hit KZN - study

Floods in KZN . . . a car washed away near Phoenix, north of Durban. Picture: African News Agency (ANA).

Floods in KZN . . . a car washed away near Phoenix, north of Durban. Picture: African News Agency (ANA).

Published May 8, 2023


It’s been a year since devastating floods struck Durban and other parts of KwaZulu-Natal, with the flood proved to be the worst natural catastrophe ever recorded in KZN in terms of human casualties, property destruction, and economic effects, according to new research.

Published in the South African Geographical Journal on 11 April 2023, the study was a collaboration between researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom.

The slow-moving storm Issa dumped more than 300 mm of rain in 24 hours over the KZN coastal zone, including the larger Durban region and the South Coast, on 11-12 April 2022.

Up to 459 people lost their lives because of the flooding and landslides with an additional forty thousand losing their homes. It is now believed that businesses and infrastructure lost a total of R36 billion.

Durban was nearly ground to a halt by the floods, which caused more damage than municipal and provincial officials were prepared to handle. Cyril Ramaphosa proclaimed a national state of calamity because of the dire circumstances.

Heavy precipitation, floods, and mass migration were described as "smashing weather records"; in national and worldwide media. However, there is not a comprehensive historical record of flooding in KZN to put the events of April 2022 into context.

Focusing on the broader Durban area, the research provided a geographical history of floods in the province.

To piece together a geographical history of KZN’s flood tragedies, researchers pored over hundreds of articles from long-defunct newspapers, colonial and government archives, early missionary records, and meteorological records (which began to be kept in earnest in the 1850s).

The study’s definition of extreme flooding occurrences included large rivers overflowing their banks and at least one major consequence, such as the death of people, animals, crops, or infrastructure like buildings, roads or bridges.

In April 1848, the Umgeni River spilled its banks, causing Durban to experience its first major flood.

Deaths were reported, roads were flooded, and buildings were damaged during three days of intense, nonstop rain in March 1849 in the Durban and Pietermaritzburg areas.

From 1850 to 1899, researchers recorded 53 major flood occurrences, and between 1900 and 2022, they recorded a total of 210 major flood events across KZN. Durban saw devastating floods in 1856 and again in April from rainfall that lasted for three days.

The city had a record-breaking 691 mm of precipitation between 14-16 April 1856, with a total of 303 mm falling in 24 hours. A large number of people drowned, the whole city centre was submerged, bridges were wrecked, and highways were stopped for days as a result of these unprecedented floods.

Back then, Durban was only a tiny town with a sparser population and a less developed economy. Therefore, the number of people affected or the amount of money lost may have been higher in 1856.

The analysis concluded that the floods in April 2022 were the deadliest and most economically devastating natural calamity ever recorded in KZN.

Study co-author and researcher Stefan Grab said that “within the bounds of the data at hand, we conclude that the occurrence of floods in the city has doubled in the past century. In terms of meteorology, the 2022 event is noteworthy for having produced the greatest ever 24-hour rainfall total. Some areas of reporting, however, need more careful thinking and language.”

“There is concern that the damage caused by floods and related hazards in South Africa will increase if adequate adaptation and mitigation actions are not implemented,” said Grab.

Researchers recommended that critical adaptation methods include the construction and maintenance of drainage systems that can handle significant volumes of water and improved geo-technical stabilisation of slopes as well as updated disaster management plans to keep up with changing weather patterns.

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