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Climate disaster

Chances of finding 60 missing KZN flood victims virtually nil

eThekwini official says data is crucial for infrastructure planning

23 May 2022 - 19:26
More houses and infrastructure have been damaged during the heavy rain at the weekend in Umdloti, north of Durban.
Trauma repeated More houses and infrastructure have been damaged during the heavy rain at the weekend in Umdloti, north of Durban.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

While KwaZulu-Natal has been thrown into turmoil by a fresh bout of flooding that has already claimed one life, thousands are still reeling from the April disaster and trying to pick up the pieces of their homes and lives.

Sandile Mbatha, a senior manager responsible for research and policy advocacy in the eThekwini municipality, has revealed the shocking figures that showed the scale of every heartbreaking human story from the province and said that data-driven decision making is the only way forward.

Speaking at a local governments for sustainability (known as ICLEI) conference on Monday, he said that as of May 9, 390 people have been confirmed dead while 60 are still missing.

“The chances of finding any of these 60 alive at this point is virtually impossible,” he said.

Altogether, 86 wards were affected and a staggering 23,298 dwellings destroyed, along with 430 roads damaged or destroyed.

In care homes, where some of the most vulnerable live, 9,091 people were affected by the floods. Of children in the region, 13,153 were affected and for adults the figure is 34,689.

“We are talking about huge infrastructure disruptions,” he said, “so how do we then build along the same lines in the future when we know the bulk of it was swept away?”

Mbatha said a major problem in general with urban infrastructure is that it doesn’t work with nature.

“When you build a pipe across a stream, it will get swept away, even if it is a place that hardly ever has flooding,” he said. But, he adds, gathering data is a useful part of moving forward.

“That is what we are doing. Data is the foundation of sustainable infrastructure decisions, and in eThekwini we are integrating our city-level data to inform decisions.”

He said that “without a concerted effort to transform government institutions”, they are designed to be inefficient.

He said a major stumbling block for all cities is the “multiple layers of decision-making that have to happen even when you just want to buy a pen”.

To work against the clock of climate change and a burgeoning urban population, delays can result in the wrong decisions being made once all the layers of decision-making have been completed.

He urged officials in all cities to gather and use data to maximum effect. “Data gives not just policymakers but citizens too an understanding of the state of affairs in their city,” he said.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), disaster events like those witnessed in eThekwini are going to become more frequent as the climate crisis intensifies.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon that will increasingly affect urban life,” according to the UNEP, “Rising global temperatures cause sea levels to rise, increase the number of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and storms, and increase the spread of tropical diseases. All these have costly implications for cities’ basic services, infrastructure, housing, human livelihoods and health.”

At the same time, cities are responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions, with “transport and buildings being among the largest contributors”.

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