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Time for eThekwini to put the interest of its citizens first

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Picture: Screen shot of a video circulating on social media community groups. A suspected ‘tornado’ ripped though areas north of Durban on Tuesday. Is our disaster management plan as a country up to speed with climate change, or are the people of South Africa heading for more unpredictable and unannounced climate change impacts? the writer asks.

By Kershni Ramreddi

Following the floods in KwaZulu-Natal in April last year, there has been an increase in house damage, fatalities, and infrastructure damage for the second year in a row. The torrential rains and tornado on June 27 have demonstrated that climate change is still a reality and, if it persists, it will continue to have an increasingly frequent and wide-ranging impact on people and the environment.

These floods and storms have in the past been attributed to climate change. But is our disaster management plan as a country up to speed with climate change, or are the people of South Africa heading for more unpredictable and unannounced climate change impacts? eThekwini Municipality has once again demonstrated its lack of readiness to evacuate citizens during storms like the one on Tuesday night that scared people with a “tornado” and brought back memories of the 2022 floods.

Recurring flooding has plagued Durban for many years, uprooting residents and causing extreme hardship for vulnerable communities. Explosions, fires and floods have all occurred in Durban without any forward planning or warning. The safety and well-being of locals are not prioritised in any comprehensive catastrophe evacuation or emergency plans, even though major industries have long had access to such plans for their protection.

There have been serious ramifications for public health, property damage and loss of life as a result of the lack of co-operation and communication. At least 500 people lost their lives in a single catastrophic flood disaster on April 12 last year. Visits were made to provide aid to damaged areas, informal settlements, and other hard-hit communities, where hundreds of people lost everything. Children lost important school supplies, personal documents, and even their sense of identity as a result of the flood’s aftermath.

This makes it clear that the city’s governance and disaster management plan have structural flaws. To encourage a collaborative approach, there needs to be urgent, continuing communication and interaction with locals. Politicians have cut links with the areas they were elected to represent. Laws and by-laws need to adopt a new perspective that emphasises the significance of keeping public servants accountable for their actions and making sure that community views are heard and considered when making decisions.

The city needs to implement vital measures to stop future flooding catastrophes. The citizens must first and foremost be regularly communicated with and consulted so that policies can be shaped by their needs and viewpoints. Second, a significant percentage of the budget should be set up for infrastructure shortcomings that contribute to flooding. Local input and the solving of pressing problems faced by communities living in flood-prone areas should be given priority in this.

Third, it should be a top priority to improve resilience, which includes building good housing and educating people on environmental adaptation measures like conserving crucial ecosystems such as trees and wildlife. The impact of climate change on the environment and innocent people is without doubt the most important factor underpinning the flood problem.

Politicians frequently put short-term profits ahead of the urgent need to move away from fossil fuels while environmentalists and scientists sound the alarm and demand action. To battle climate change and protect the welfare of future generations, the importance of group efforts and the participation of all facets of society must be emphasised and not taken for granted. A sincere commitment to change is required, persuading decisionmakers to put long-term goals ahead of short-term rewards.

Lessons must be learnt and prompt action taken to protect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged as Durban deals with yet another terrible flood. There is an urgent need to address the pattern of poor disaster management, poor communication, and the spectre of climate change. It is time for the city to re-examine its policies, redistribute resources, and collaborate with communities to reduce potential threats in the future.

Durban cannot become a resilient city that prioritises the safety and well-being of every citizen without sustained efforts. Although we have little control over the weather, we can and should take action to stop the catastrophic effects of these extreme weather events. Given the understanding of climate change, municipalities and local governments have failed in their responsibility to prepare for mitigation. This failure is primarily due to KZN’s political parties and the prevalence of reckless corruption. In the key sectors of disaster risk mitigation – water, sewage, public health, and waste management – poor infrastructure maintenance has been brought on by cadre deployment and corruption scandals. But there has also been a severe failure by the national government to treat climate change seriously.

The government continues to encourage new applications for oil and gas development in South Africa regardless of the storms that slash through Durban. How can the national government pledge to take action while facing the people of Durban and continuing to contribute to the climate issue by assisting major fossil fuel companies located within our borders? Instead of making a change, President Cyril Ramaphosa has signed off on a determination to increase salaries of all public office bearers by 3 percent from April 1 last year. This increase is coming amid serious economic challenges. Therefore, I ask: Are we seeing a change for the people or are we feeding corruption? Together, we must find the power to create a society in which the people’s government works for and with them.

As our hearts go out to those who are suffering as a result of the floods in KZN, we also urge everyone to unite and demand the mitigation and adaptation planning that is required if we are to take climate change seriously.

Ramreddi is a just transition and energy project officer at the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.