Seasonal weather patterns observed by the South African Weather Service (Saws) and research show that climate change could be behind the intense rain KwaZulu-Natal has been experiencing, but other factors including geography and land degradation also play a role in a flood disaster.
Parts of KZN have experienced heavy rain over the December period and into the start of the new year, with the death toll due to inclement weather conditions in the province during the festive season has increased to 40, according to the provincial government’s Disaster Management teams.
The recent wet weather cast over Ladysmith and Pietermaritzburg forced the provincial government to evacuate families from low-lying areas affected by the flood.
Saws issued a yellow Level 2 warning for disruptive rainfall in the western and southern parts of KZN.
Seventy people were evacuated from Ladysmith central and taken to an indoor sport centre for safety.
Some of the roads, including the N11 between Newcastle and Ladysmith were closed.
The heavy rains also caused large sinkholes to develop along one of the busiest roads in Pietermaritzburg.
For December, 310mm of rain fell in Ladysmith, compared to the 178.6 mm that fell in December 2022, according to data by Saws.
Historic data dating back to 2019 shows that December, January and February experience the most rainfall.
In Pietermaritzburg, 187.4mm of rain fell during December, a decrease compared to the 263mm that fell during December 2022.
Other parts of the province, including Durban and areas along the north and south coast also experienced consistent rainfall over December.
Around 74 people have been reported injured, with around 247 homes destroyed, while hundreds sustained damages to their homes during the storm, according to reports by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.
Chief Scientist in the Climate Service Department at Saws, Dr Andries Kruger said that while there are some factors pointing towards climate change as a reason for the increased frequency of flooding in KZN, there are others to consider.
Saws rainfall research covering the last century show that daily rainfall, in specific, has become more intense.
“This is especially the case for the eastern parts of the country, where the likelihood of unprecedented extreme rainfall events have become increasingly likely to occur,” Kruger said.
Assessing the disasters on a case-by-case basis, however, provides a more accurate understanding of weather patterns when paying mind to the topic of climate change.
With regard to Ladysmith, Kruger said its geography puts it in a vulnerable position in times of heavy rains as it is situated in a low-lying valley. The town is also situated on a significant curve in the Klip River.
“Given the contributing factors, in addition to rainfall distribution, it is difficult to reasonably assign climate change as the major cause of the recent extreme events.
“In addition, it should be noted that other factors such as increased land degradation, alien vegetation and arbitrary settlements and land-use significantly contributes to flooding, infrastructure damage and associated loss of life,” the weather expert said.
Meanwhile, the South African Local Governance Organisation (Salga) urged more better working relationships in the face of changing weather patterns.
“What is now abundantly clear is that climate change is here, and Salga emphasises the importance of public safety during these trying times.
“Municipalities and governments are urged to collaboratively implement precautionary measures, risk reduction, mitigation and provide funding support,” Salga said.