April 2022 KZN floods the most catastrophic yet recorded - Wits University study

Two cars stuck under the water in North Coast road.Picture:Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)

Two cars stuck under the water in North Coast road.Picture:Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Apr 11, 2023


Recent research conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand has shown that the disastrous flood which hit Durban in April 2022 was the most catastrophic natural disaster yet recorded in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) in collective terms of lives lost, homes and infrastructure damaged or destroyed and economic impact.

This is according to a new study by researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the University of Brighton, UK, published in the South African Geographical Journal.

The study, which reconstructed the history of floods in KZN since the 1840s, confirmed a widely-held – yet anecdotal view – that the April 2022 floods were likely the most catastrophic natural disaster yet recorded in KZN and that flooding events have doubled over the last century or more.

Professor Stefan Grab from Wits University and his colleague, Professor David Nash constructed a geographical history of flooding disasters in KZN by sifting through thousands of archived articles held in old newspapers, colonial and government records, early missionary records, and meteorological records which became available from the 1850s onwards.

According to lead author Grab, the aim of the study was to place the floods into perspective and see if this and other statements related to the disaster were factually correct, by building a historic geographic account of past floods and associated extreme rainfall events for the province of KZN and particularly the greater Durban region.

The study found that while the floods were indeed the most catastrophic in terms of lives lost, infrastructure damaged, and economical loss, the flood was not actually the biggest in terms of the area affected, homes destroyed, or the amount of rainfall that fell collectively over a few days.

“When you look at a natural disaster you need to look at it in context. Whether the April 2022 floods were the ‘worst in living memory’ is debatable, as a flooding event in September 1987 affected a larger geographic area of KZN and destroyed more homes than the 2022 event,” says Grab.

The study also found that a similar catastrophic flooding event in Durban, 1856 – also in April – produced a greater quantity of rainfall over a three-day period than last year’s floods.

“It is difficult to compare the two floods in terms of which was the most severe. We must recognize that back in 1856 Durban was only a town with a much smaller population and economic infrastructure to that of today, and thus the percentage of individuals impacted or percentage economic loss may well have been greater back in 1856. In addition, coping mechanisms and ‘outside’ support would have been far more restricted during the 19th century,” said Grab.

He said with regards to flood disasters, history was repeating itself and there needed to be preparation for rainfall events not just in Durban, but in all South African cities and towns.

“We must get our infrastructure, especially drainage systems, in order. It is urgent that we better prepare ourselves for the heavy rainfall and flood events that are guaranteed to come in times ahead,” Grab said.