Whether climate change is the reason for the KwaZulu-Natal floods or not, these calamities appear to be on the rise. They are becoming more frequent and more severe; more lives are being lost, livelihoods disrupted and economies damaged.
Over the last century, South Africa recorded 100 natural disasters with 2 200 deaths and a R68 billion economic loss. Over 20 million people were affected. Most communities never recovered. Now, in April 2022 alone, the KwaZulu-Natal floods caused the loss of more than 450 lives (20% of century total) and an estimated economic cost of more than R32 billion (47% of century total) – and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) states that more floods can be expected.
Globally, the increase in natural disasters, including floods, droughts, fires and more is causing a major thematic shift in the political arena with green economy-focused parties winning the votes.
‘Green parties increased their vote share in 13 European countries at the most recent national elections. In six of those countries, green parties have a share of power in coalition governments.’ – BBC News, October 2021.
Recently, Australia voted in a new ruling party shifting to a green economy. Voters are expressing their loss of confidence in the sluggish approach to climate adaptation by dominating mainstream parties (Slate.com, July 2020).
South Africa, with its own dynamics, participated at a global level in shaping climate change-related policies and frameworks (Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, UN, December 2011). This network offers access to disaster management support and funding, aiming to decrease inequalities in South Africa (Gini index). With government allocations of an estimated R1.25 billion versus a R32 billion economic loss in KwaZulu-Natal in April 2022, the gap shows that climate adaptation has become critical. The challenge of human dignity is even more acerbated by disasters like the KZN floods, and the regret rate increases with every natural calamity.
Rural-urban areas are most vulnerable to natural disasters because of the concentration and activities of these societies. Congestion and limited escape routes, dense infrastructures and misalignment with ‘town’ planning, flood maps and engineering regulations add to the vulnerability (PRB 2011). The redesign of the flow of cities and decentralisation of economies to rural-urban and remote areas are critical to rethinking climate resilience.
Making rural-urban areas largely self-sufficient, through climate-smart infrastructures with their own clean energy generation, can propel smart communities to become climate resilient whilst creating jobs and transitioning to green economy skills.
With a downpour of freshwater in a water-scarce country, South Africa should be stockpiling this scarce commodity of life. Rerouting the flow of fluvial and pluvial floods to reservoirs, dams and home-based aquifers, including to other provinces where Day Zero is near, can increase water access to communities. In addition, the flow can generate power, furthering just energy transition and human dignity through climate adaptation.
In Europe, most roads have water and rain level-monitoring systems, combined with the use of self-draining smart materials that are further linked to smart technologies to keep traffic and people informed about risk areas. Ski resorts have snowfall and early avalanche warning systems. Therefore, it is possible for South Africa to utilise smart technologies and smart materials to monitor and manage ground saturation, rainfall levels and landslide risks.
Linking this into a smart-app early warning system (EWS) to notify people of the danger zones, evacuation procedures and escape routes empowers people to take preventative action, like the EskomSePush app. An EWS smart app should include communication, coordination and cooperation structures to mobilise the diversity of organisations, humanitarian aid, emergency services and other to mitigate the potential loss in human dignity, lives and livelihoods.
A watertight interactive communication platform, taking into consideration the 11 official languages, can eliminate delays whilst promoting cohesion.
South Africa, with its 30% unemployment rate, can increase its climate adaptation capacity by establishing a disaster resilience reservist development programme.
This has the potential to build climate resilience skills and expertise that we can export worldwide. DG ECHO highlighted the humanitarian shortcomings such as lack of food, clean water, hygiene packs, education and healthcare in the rural-urban communities. These reservists could address these reported shortcomings.
Post-disaster rebuilds are potentially impossible to recover from. These costs are exponentially more than proactive investments in the implementation of climate adaptation and resilience.
This might be a watershed opportunity that can change the course of our inequality, disparity and D&I. All the required climate-adaptive abilities exist for South Africa to tap into and leapfrog into a climate-resilient green economy.