South Africa

Floods in South Africa wreak havoc because people are forced to live in disaster-prone areas

The catastrophic floods left hundreds dead and countless families displaced from their homes, compounding the serious housing problem.

Residents collect drinking water from a broken pipe that comes out of a collapsed embankment on the side of a road in Amaoti, north of Durban, on April 14, 2022 following heavy rains and flooding in the province. Photo: Marco LONGARI/AFP

This article first appeared on The conversation.

Rapid urbanization and government failure provide suitable accommodation are among the drivers of the proliferation of informal settlements in South African towns and villages. These informal settlements are notorious for their perilous and unsanitary conditions.

This was clearly illustrated by the recent floods in Ethekwini (Durban), the port city of KwaZulu-Natal province, and its surrounding communities. The catastrophic floods cost hundreds of lives and countless families were displaced from their homes, compounding the serious housing problem many already found themselves in.

It is difficult to provide adequate housing, mainly because there are not enough suitable ground in the right places. The unavailability of suitable land for adequate housing is due to the lagging progress of urban land reform. This, in turn, cripples the ability of local governments to provide adequate housing in areas that are not disaster-prone.

The result is that A quarter of South Africa’s urban population lives in informal settlements. These are built wherever people find open spaces closer to economic opportunities. They lack basic amenities and infrastructure, including proper roads and stormwater drainage systems. This makes their residents the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and changing weather patterns, such as flooding.

Recently, new informal settlements have sprung up in risky and environmentally sensitive areas, prone to flooding and landslides, among other hazards.

Ethekwini is a good example. The city’s geographic information system shows that some of the vacant land encroached on by informal settlements falls under the 50 or 100 year flood lines. Flood lines physically delineate areas that could be flooded within a certain time frame.

The time interval is calculated on the average qualification and could be 50 or 100 years. Living in areas marked off as flood lines is not only illegal but also very dangerous.

Floodlines are mostly delineated along rivers and streams. They cover the floodplains of the river. During the recent torrential storm, waterways were inundated, including their floodplains. Communities established in low areas and near watercourses were the most affected, as well as those established on steep slopes. Affected areas included Prospecton, Isipingo and Ntuzuma.

From time to time, planners and researchers have sounded the alarm about the dangers posed by occupying floodlines, whether in formal or informal settlements. However, when it comes to controlling the proliferation of informal settlements in disaster-prone areas, law enforcement has been piecemeal.


The Municipality of Ethekwini has failed to apply lessons from previous flooding incidents – in the region as well as more broadly across the country – in its planning. The area was flooded in July 2016May 2017October 2017March 2019April 2019 and November 2019. Floods also occurred in other parts of the country. In November 2021 the town of George was hit by flooding. In January 2022 Ladysmith was hit by flooding while Gauteng province was hit in February 2022.

Yet Ethekwini is still ill-prepared to deal with floods, especially in poor communities. As if poverty were not enough of a burden, it is the poor who bear the brunt of the floods the most, worsening their vulnerable position in the city.

Short of relocating communities to safer areas, the city could and should have taken other steps by building the capacity of low-income and informal communities living in high-risk areas.

The steps should have included:

  • official flood warning systems and evacuation programs
  • land use control on flood sites
  • building regulations to prevent flood water incursion and insurance schemes
  • educate people, especially in low-lying areas, that they are prone to flooding
  • law enforcement to prevent people from building in flood prone areas.

These strategies have been used in a number of South Asian countries.

But the most sustainable solutions can be found in good urban planning.


Urban planners have a key role to play in reversing the situation. They might not directly address the root causes of climate change or sea level rise and flooding. But they can greatly contribute to urban resilience and fortification measures to mitigate flood impacts.

Well-designed urban spaces and evidence-based interventions can improve social, economic and environmental resilience.

Building resilience also involves putting in place real mitigation measures.

Addressing complex urban challenges in an integrated way means developing solutions not only for a challenge, but also for urban poverty, inequality, climate change and urban ecosystems. The goal is to create livelihoods that are both sustainable and resilient.

This requires an approach that includes looking at all the hazards an urban area might face, the sectors that need to be involved and the stakeholders that need to be involved to ensure that a solid foundation is in place to strengthen resilience.

Floods in South Africa wreak havoc because people are forced to live in disaster-prone areas

Source link Floods in South Africa wreak havoc because people are forced to live in disaster-prone areas

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