SA’s ticking climate change bomb

Bilaal Jeewa, a member of the disaster response NGO Gift of the Givers, assesses damage to a flood-hit area in KwaZulu-Natal. It is civil society, rather than local and national governments, that have mobilised a rapid response to the devastation, according to the writers. Picture: Gift of the Givers

Bilaal Jeewa, a member of the disaster response NGO Gift of the Givers, assesses damage to a flood-hit area in KwaZulu-Natal. It is civil society, rather than local and national governments, that have mobilised a rapid response to the devastation, according to the writers. Picture: Gift of the Givers

Published Apr 24, 2022


By Kira Erwin, Kershni Ramreddi and Cassandra Schnoor

Last week, the people of KwaZulu-Natal experienced devastating losses. There was loss of property, infrastructure, livelihoods and, tragically, the lives of loved ones, including children, in the heavy rains and floods.

When the rain stopped, people across Durban were left without water and electricity for days. We also lost the safe use of our beaches due to the unimaginable amounts of plastics and other pollution that had washed up on the shoreline.

These floods have not just harmed livelihoods but exacerbated recent environmental disasters. In the heavy rains, the containment dams for the toxic chemical spill from the UPL warehouse in Cornubia were breached.

This led to far more toxic pollution being spewed into our rivers and oceans. While we cannot control the weather, we can and should move to prevent the tragic consequences of these severe weather occurrences. Climate change is not new to us.

For many years it has been a central and rapidly growing concern, both globally and nationally. Indeed, the urgent warnings from scientists and civil society that climate change will bring more severe weather occurrences have long brought a call for governments around the world to develop mitigation strategies for this.

It is at the local level that the most harm is felt when the government fails to prepare for, and mitigate against, changes in our climate. The massive damage to infrastructure seen in Durban illustrates just how dangerous climate change is when our government is found lacking in adequate mitigation planning.

Local government and municipalities must prioritise strategic planning in the following areas:

* Maintenance of critical infrastructure and drainage, development of functional public health and early warning systems, and properly resourced disaster management plans and training.

* Ensuring minimal loss of life and infrastructural damage is not a “nice to have” in an age of climate change – it is a fundamental right of all people living in the city and a critical necessity for our urban existence.

The lack of a robust and systematic disaster management response has left people to reach out for assistance to their respective local government officials and councillors, with little success.

It is civil society and the generosity of neighbours that has mobilised a rapid response to this community devastation. Where is our protection from the climate crisis when we need it the most?

Given what is now commonly accepted knowledge on climate change, this lack of mitigation preparation constitutes a failure on behalf of our municipalities and local government.

The weight of selfish corruption and political factionalism in KwaZulu-Natal is directly responsible for this failure. Cadre deployment and corruption scandals have resulted in poor infrastructure maintenance in core disaster risk mitigation areas – water, sewage, public health and waste management.

But there is also a deep failure in our national government’s actions to take climate change seriously. In the midst of the storm that ravaged Durban, our government continues to support new applications for oil and gas exploration in South Africa.

How does the national government look the people of Durban in the eye and promise them action, while they continue to drive the climate crisis themselves by supporting big fossil fuel companies within our borders?

The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based on a thorough assessment of scientific evidence, is crystal clear in holding fossil fuel companies to account for global warming, a direct contributor to extreme weather patterns.

Indeed, the report calls for radical change to renewables and an immediate end to all new fossil fuel mining. The IPCC also points to the troubling fact that both private and public financial flows continue to be greater for fossil fuels than for climate adaptation and mitigation.

Development decisions made now in South Africa and how they exacerbate or mitigate against climate change, no longer impact just on our future but on our ability to live safely in the present.

The floods in KZN, therefore, are not disconnected from our local or national government’s actions. Nor are the droughts South Africa has experienced in recent years.

Our geographic location means we have, on the whole, a dry and warm climate. Two research reports by leading South African scientists, released by the Centre for Environmental Rights in 2021, state that temperatures are already on the rise across South Africa.

Besides more severe weather events, this also leads to potential loss of livestock and agriculture, as well as severe water shortages. But we have a second inter-related crisis here – that of deep structural inequality.

A lack of climate change adaptation and mitigation planning dooms already vulnerable socio-economic groups to be the first to experience the dangerous and life-threatening consequences of this.

Climate change is fundamentally an environmental justice issue. These issues present us with a serious challenge as a society. If we are to face them in ways that lessen the harm to people, animals, plants and the planet, we need to be brave in our belief that we can imagine a radically different society.

Together we need to find the strength to build a society where our government serves and plans with its people, rather than with big polluting corporations whose rush for profits is pushing us closer to the brink of our climate crises.

As our thoughts and prayers are with those struggling with the consequences of the floods in KZN, we also call on us all to stand together to demand the mitigation and adaptation planning we need to take climate change seriously. Indeed, our very lives depend on it!

* Erwin is from the Durban University of Technology and both Ramreddi, and Schnoor are from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.