DURBAN, South Africa — In 2009, as officials in the port city of Durban prepared to host the next year’s World Cup of soccer, they moved hundreds of residents from their tin shacks near the city center to a flood-prone field south of town.
The new settlement was a tight cluster made of drywall homes, built without electricity. It is located between a noisy highway (and a river). Officials acknowledged that flood risks existed but promised residents that residents would be moved into permanent homes within three to six months. Themba Lushaba was resettled with his partner.
Thirteen years and four floods later, Mr. Lushaba (34), still lives in the settlement, waiting for a permanent home. The worst flooding was last week’s torrential rain. His belly button was flooded in pitch black. He and his neighbors had to flee to a field nearby, where they shivered under umbrellas throughout the night.
South Africa suffered one of the worst natural disasters in its recorded history when last week’s storms in the Durban area killed at least 448 people, destroyed thousands of homes and left behind shocking scenes of devastation. Shipping containers were thrown onto major highways like Legos. The support pillars of vacation houses were washed away and dangled from the mud-streaked hillsides. Tin shack homes were found and buried.
Some scientists attribute the extreme storm intensity to climate change. The disaster has also highlighted an important reality in the fight against extreme storms: Protecting people means addressing social as well as environmental issues.
The failure of government leaders in South Africa to resolve a longstanding housing crisis — fueled by poverty, unemployment and inequality — played a major role in the high death toll from last week’s storms, activists and scholars said.
“Very often, not just in South Africa, but in many other developing countries as well, there simply isn’t the money, there’s not the expertise and there isn’t the government will to invest properly in protecting the poorest in society,” said Jasper Knight, a professor of physical geography at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Many of the destruction was caused by makeshift settlements made of flimsy structures which were later destroyed. Poor South Africans often settle in these communities because they are close to job opportunities that don’t exist in their far-flung hometowns. Many also can’t afford more stable, permanent housing. So they build tin shacks on any land they can find, and often in unsuitable locations for housing.
In the case of Durban and the surrounding area, those locations are often in low-lying valleys next to rivers or on the loose dirt of steep slopes — among the most dangerous places to be when severe rain storms strike, as they did a week ago.
Many planned communities in the region still live on unsuitable terrain. This is partly due to the apartheid government’s legacy that forced the Black majority into living in neglected areas.
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, during an address to the nation on Monday night, acknowledged the fatal shortcomings of the government’s housing policy.
The process of recovering from the devastation, he said, “will also involve the construction of houses in suitably-located areas and measures to protect the residents of these areas from such adverse weather events in the future.”
While heavy rains are common this time of year, Durban is one of several cities on Africa’s southeast coast that have seen an increase in rainfall that some scientists attribute to climate change. In just about two days, eThekwini, the municipality that includes Durban and surrounding communities, experienced the equivalent of a month’s rainfall, scientists at the University of Cape Town said.
That drenching weather came as the region was still drying off from destructive rain and flooding in 2017 and 2019 — and as hundreds of residents displaced by floods back then were still languishing in transit camps. In 2019, more 70 people were killed.
Mbulelo Baloyi (spokesman for KwaZulu-Natal’s housing department), said that the complicated process of obtaining government contracts for new homes was slowing down rebuilding after 2017. Baloyi explained that when areas still recovering after the floods were flattened in 2019, the national government intervened and simplified the process.
The government is already erecting modest, prefabricated homes for transit camps for some of the estimated 40,000 people who have been displaced by this year’s flooding.
In 2018, the city of Durban identified growing informal settlements as a significant challenge in the city’s response to climate change. After the 2019 floods, Durban developed a plan to increase renewable energy, reduce car transport, and make informal settlements more climate-resilient.
Despite these promises, city officials have not done enough to address the devastating effects of climate change through economic and social developments, according to Tafadzwanashe Makhaudhi (a professor in climate, food and water systems at the University of KwaZulu Natal).
He said that creating job opportunities in different parts of the country could help alleviate the despair that causes some people to live in informal settlements. These are often the only places where they can find accommodation in crowded areas where most of their jobs are.
Mr. Lushaba’s family owns a compound in Uzumbe, a rural community an hour south of Durban, with three rondavels standing next to a four-room home made of concrete blocks.
With no job prospects in the region, he decided to leave in 2008 to relocate to Durban to live in a Tin Shack. This was where his mother had been living since 1996, and where he did domestic work. Like many people in a country with an unemployment rate exceeding 35 percent, Mr. Lushaba was unable to find a job. He works occasionally as security guard in a nearby village.
Mr. Lushaba was relocated in 2009 after local leaders used a provincial statute to block the World Cup visitors from seeing shack settlements. He is desperate for work so that he can rent his permanent home. The government is not delivering on its promise to provide one.
“They only tell us that we must wait our turn,” he said. “The government is always making a lot of promises but is never coming back to do it.”
The land under Mr. Lushaba’s transit camp, in the Isipingo township, was once a wetland buffer for the neighboring Sipingo River, he said. These low-slung structures are boxlike and have a maze made of muddy alleyways. All over the pavement are black wires carrying the unlicensed power connections that residents have hooked up.
It flooded in 2011, two years after it was established. It happened again in 2017, 2019, and this week. Residents go through the same routine each time: They head higher, let the water drain, then they rake the mud off their single-room homes. Finally, they take inventory of what can be saved and what must be thrown away.
This week, scenes like these were seen all over the region. In the Inanda township north of Durban, a pile of mud, broken trees and mattresses was all that was left of a home where four relatives were believed to be buried.
Mr. Lushaba and the girlfriend placed a light blue mattress over a sofa that was drying in front their home on Tuesday. Their corrugated tin roof was covered with shoes, a fan, and other items.
“It hurts me to stay here,” he said. “It’s dirty all over.”
Ravi Pillay, the provincial executive in charge of economic development, said Mr. Lushaba’s grievances were understandable.
“I think it was poorly located in a bit of a low-lying area,” he said of the Isipingo transit camp. “At that time there wasn’t the kind of appreciation of the flooding risk that we have now.”
However, some wonder if government officials still have the will to move with the needed urgency.
About a quarter of eThekwini’s population lives in informal settlements, according to Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu, an associate professor in town and regional planning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In an email response to questions, she stated that local planning authorities have not been able to keep up with increasing housing demand.
“The port city is heading towards a very bleak and catastrophic future,” she said, “if measures are not put in place to reduce the impacts of flooding in the future.”
John Eligon, Zanele Miji, and Lynsey Chotel reported from Durban, South Africa.
Source: NY Times