Experts sound alarm over floods

Heavy rains resulted in flooding around the old refinery site in Prospecton, Durban, in 2022.

Heavy rains resulted in flooding around the old refinery site in Prospecton, Durban, in 2022.

Published Apr 21, 2024


Durban — “Alarming” consequences loom for KwaZulu-Natal if town planning regulations are not enforced to mitigate the effects of heavy weather.

Non-compliance and lax enforcing, especially in built-up areas of KwaZulu-Natal, would continue to yield catastrophic consequences like those caused by heavy rains that lashed Margate last weekend and the floods in Durban in April 2022.

University of KwaZulu-Natal town and regional planning professor Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu, whose most recent book, The Anatomy of Inclusive Cities, was published last year, said it was imperative to take a careful look at the town and city planning.

“At the risk of being considered a legend of doom, in light of recent developments, it’s become evident that the current trajectory of urban planning poses significant risks to our cities and towns. The potential dangers ahead are alarming, unless we take immediate and strategic actions to mitigate these risks and promote sustainable urban development.”

Magidimisha-Chipungu pointed to the flash floods that ripped through Margate last Sunday, killing five people. Businesses, households and the holiday town’s infrastructure bear the consequences of the more than 200mm of rain that fell over 24 hours, leaving many displaced and homeless.

Experts call for upgrades of infrastructure at informal settlements like this one in Isipingo south of Durban, to prevent greater devastation when extreme weather events occur. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya Independent Newspapers

More than 300mm of rain fell over Durban in a similar timeframe in April 2022, roughly a third of the mean annual rainfall for the city, bringing widespread devastation and leaving 443 dead and 48 missing. More than 26 000 dwellings, 600 schools and 84 health-care facilities were damaged. The KZN government estimated the total economic loss to be R17 billion.

“Slum areas” where planning principles were disregarded often suffered higher levels of devastation.

Magidimisha-Chipungu said these residences varied from shanty houses to professionally built dwellings which, because of poor-quality construction or lack of basic maintenance, had deteriorated. She called for reforms and the upgrade of slums where possible to improve the infrastructure and living conditions in these areas.

“It would drastically reduce the adverse impact of flood disasters and empower people to develop a level of resilience that would better protect them from future calamities.

“The legacy of apartheid planning persists not only in the physical layout of our cities, but also in the social and economic disparities that continue to define our urban spaces.”

Magidimisha-Chipungu said it was time to move beyond talk to action.

“Implementing policies and initiatives that prioritise inclusive planning, equitable resource allocation and community participation is essential to redress the historical injustices perpetuated by colonial and apartheid urban strategies,” she said.

Environmentalist Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance believes poor town planning continued into the democratic era and hurts Durban.

He cited poorly constructed roads, stormwater drains and other infrastructure in places like Reunion and Isipingo, which were overwhelmed in April 2022.

“The authorities ignored the advice given by experienced people and replaced features like mangroves, swamps and other greenbelts with development, even on places like floodplains,” D’Sa said.

“Even well-off people in places like Ballito were affected by the extreme weather, but luckily for them they have insurance, the poor do not.”

South African Petroleum Refineries (Sapref) in the south of Durban was underwater during the April 2022 floods. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo Independent Newspapers

Dr Kira Erwin of environmental justice NGO groundWork said the eThekwini Municipality wasted an opportunity to set-up a task team after the April 2022 floods to engage with citizens, especially those most affected by the floods, about the city’s Integrated Development Plan.

“They can still engage with planners, architects, civil society and environmentalists on how planning can improve service to people, deal with floods and mitigate further deaths.”

eThekwini Municipality spokesperson Gugu Sisilana said climate change was a real risk faced by all South African cities and the City took seriously the challenges it posed. Therefore, their engineers were required to constantly assess all risks.

Sisilana said they realised the importance of understanding the effects of climate change, which is evidenced by the Municipal Adaptation Plans, approved by Council in 2009 and developed further with other role-players.

Unlike private investment development, and because of the nature of municipal funding, the municipality’s infrastructure was used for longer and was designed for acceptable risk related to affordability. The City could not afford to install infrastructure that catered for every eventuality or size of storm, she said.

“We have culverts and pipes constructed more than 80 years ago, which are still in good structural condition.”

Regarding adherence to planning legislation, Sisilana said they expected property owners to appoint competent people to handle the design work, and they attended to and resolved complaints they received.

Independent on Saturday