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Taking collective action to reduce flood impacts

Published May 11, 2022

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By Indrani Hazel Govender

Driving through KwaZulu-Natal following the devastating floods, one noticed an abundance of soil in places not seen before. Roads, verges, homes, entire settlements, and coastal developments were covered in soil as water coursed through long-forgotten drainage lines, developed for economic advancement. Nature sent violently angry waters through built structures, showing no mercy for human life nor for the value placed on property. Nature took the course of least resistance, and water travelled at alarming speeds, in unprecedented volumes, carrying with it displaced soil. The earth’s surface has been transformed extensively over time, due to manipulation to accommodate human needs.

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The science has warned us for decades about the possible consequences of global warming and climate change. As much as we attribute extreme events such as the recent floods to climate change, we cannot deny the role humans have played in degrading landscapes for developments, to accommodate our burgeoning population. To provide for human needs, agriculture has replaced naturally vegetated areas, and hard surfaces have replaced soil which would normally allow water to infiltrate vegetated surfaces. However, the vast areas denuded of vegetation, has contributed to the devastation of homes, businesses, infrastructure and lives. The accumulated debris in rivers from human settlements, eroded material and the sheer velocity of water is a disastrous combination which has culminated in the devastation experienced during the floods.

The valuable topsoil moved in the recent floods is a resource too often taken for granted. Unlike water, which is limited and visibly so, when we see rivers dry up, soil is all around us - even though often covered by man-made structures. The transformation of this resource through human intervention, degrades the quality of available soil. Soil is the foundation of life as we know it. It is home to the myriad microorganisms which play a critical role in supporting our ecosystems, food production and sustaining the human population. Soil provides the nutrients required for plant growth to sustain food webs, ecosystems and food security. It also provides the foundation for developments, to accommodate buildings and infrastructure. This provides the basis for sound economic development.

In the last 20 years, there is a greater push to advance the sustainability agenda. Since 2016, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been mainstreamed in government plans and policies. This needs to translate into action on the ground in the utilization of natural resources. This is especially true of soil loss due to haphazard and uncontrolled developments, and poor compliance when developments are underway. An important consideration is the adequacy of soil protection measures. With the issue of governance frequently highlighted, we need to ask a few critical questions: 1) Are there adequate regulations to cover soil protection; 2) Are staff adequately trained to enforce these regulations, and; 3) Are there resources to ensure compliance, such as information dissemination to all stakeholders. The manner in which we plan and develop land, is critical in ensuring that extreme events are considered. Strategic planning, and screening and assessment of developments for environmental impacts and environmental compliance at project level are significant processes to ensure risk minimization and mitigation against adverse effects.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made online engagement the ‘new normal’. Online global events held in the last few months, such as ‘Nature-based Solutions for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Enhancement’ and the ‘Stockholm +50 Africa Regional Multi-stakeholder Consultation’, brings stakeholders together to address common challenges facing natural resources management and environmental impacts. ‘Stockholm +50’ is a reminder of the 1972 United Nations Conference, which emphasized a healthy environment for society. Global challenges can be tackled by science and society pooling resources, through citizen science and building capacity in multi-sector stakeholders, working towards the achievement of successful natural resources management, including soil protection. South African citizens have a collective duty to protect our natural resources, by protecting intact ecosystems for flood protection, conserving vegetated streambanks and avoiding development of floodplains.

The United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration - a global call to terminate the degradation of ecosystems and promote the protection and recovery of ecosystems, as we progress towards achieving the SDGs. In our efforts to reverse the impacts of our activities, past floods are excellent teachers, which hold invaluable lessons to help us prepare for future disasters.

The recent flood event was inevitable as Mother Nature took charge. The events of the past week serve as a stark reminder that we humans are indeed not in charge. To adapt and survive, we must conform to nature’s agenda. Working with nature may be recognized by the terms: ‘nature-based solutions’ or ‘ecosystem-based adaptation’. This includes ensuring bare soil on banks and along drainage lines are vegetated to prevent flooding, improving soil retention and infiltration. Protection and mitigation against soil erosion are critical in avoiding the extent of the devastation that has been experienced in KwaZulu-Natal recently. Sustainable economic development, preserving ecological integrity through healthy ecosystems and ensuring a healthy society, may facilitate progress towards achieving the SDGs. Fundamental to this are intact healthy soil systems resulting from environmentally sustainable management practices and strategies. This is the responsibility of everyone, facilitated by science-policy-society partnerships.

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Indrani Govender is an Academic in the Department of Horticulture at the Durban University of Technology. This piece emerges from a RADLA (Research and Doctoral Leadership Academy) workshop. Govender writes in her personal capacity.

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