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Pretoria - Drought and the sweltering heat are a national crisis at the moment, but lightning may have a much more devastating effect than these conditions.

According to experts, one bolt of lightning has the capacity to constitute a nuclear power station and is the biggest threat of the summer season yet to come.

And lightning can strike from great distances; for instance, lightning from a thunderstorm in Parys in the Free State can strike a person in Pretoria.

While the country was caught in a devastating drought which has seen dams and water reserves drying up, lightning was much more dangerous, a conference in Pretoria on lightning heard on Thursday.

“When the heat wave breaks and the heavy thunderstorms come, the effects of lightning will be felt in full force,” said Lightning Interest Group for Health, Technology and Science (Lights) chairman Dr Ryan Blumenthal.

He told participants at the South African Weather Service’s Lights on Lightning conference that lightning was the most consistent and devastating weather killer in existence. It brought death, serious injuries and destruction to property.

It was a largely underestimated phenomenon whose effects were under-reported, he said.

“South Africa is in the top three countries with the highest death rates from lightning,” said senior research manager at the weather service, Dr Nhlonipho Nhlabatsi. America and India had higher rates.

Nhlabatsi said one lightning strike could kill a large number of people and ravage herds of animals on the open veld.

“Lightning is responsible for up to 300 deaths a year, but the actual statistics could be much higher,” Nhlabatsi said.

The numbers came from recorded cases of people taken into health institutions and then mortuaries after being struck.

Those who died in the more traditional setting and were buried immediately for, among others, cultural beliefs did not get recorded. “A lot of African cultures believe lightning is the result of witchcraft and that it was sent to kill people.”

The conference brought together experts and other stakeholders to talk about the effects of lightning, among them government departments, businesses, industry players, banks, doctors, insurance companies, the police, municipalities and Eskom.

Researchers, students and others took the day to engage each other on the multi-faceted impact of lightning on social economic imperatives, a task many had to tried to do before, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said.

Molewa congratulated the Weather Service and Lights for attempting to break new ground in the centuries old study of the complex, all powerful andmysterious concept that was lightning.

“From time immemorial mankind has sought to understand, harness and event at times attempt to control lightning,” she said.

She said the mythology of cultures across the world had always regarded lighting as a weapon of God.

“They thought he threw angry thunderbolts at whim, to subdue or punish humans who did wrong.”

Molewa said loss of consciousness, amnesia, paralysis and severe burns were among injuries reported by survivors. Lightning was also responsible for deaths and injuries to livestock and other animals, brush fires and the destruction of agricultural land and forests.

Nhlabatsi said the hardest hit areas of the country which had the most occurrences of lightning strikes depended on their geological setting.

“Places with ferric or red soil provide the positive charge required by lightning.

“It picks up streamers or currents of positive energy that can come from a person running or livestock huddled together against the rain or a house emitting heat from closed doors and windows,” he said. Nhlabatsi confirmed that the first real rains of the season would come in March. But there would be rain in the city soon, with thunder storms and lightning.

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