SSurvivors of the devastating floods in South Africa described “a relentless sheet of rain” that washed away entire homes, bridges and roads, killing around 450 people and leaving thousands homeless.
The storm, which produced nearly an entire year’s usual rainfall in 48 hours, took meteorologists by surprise and was blamed by climate change experts. The new disaster comes after three tropical cyclones and two tropical storms hit southeast Africa in just six weeks in the first months of this year.
The extent of the devastation caused by the floods in South Africa this month is still unclear, with many victims still missing and authorities still aware of further damage around the eastern coastal city of Durban. Several tens of thousands of people remain without water and there are growing concerns about an epidemic of infectious diseases.
Uzair Ismail, 35, said he was forced to flee his home in central Durban with his wife and eight-year-old child when water and mud engulfed doors, windows and plumbing in the middle of the night when the storm hit nearly two weeks ago.
“We were lucky to make it out alive… Slowly, slowly, we had built ourselves a habitable house with some possessions and left everything behind. But others have lost much more. At least we are safe,” Ismail told the Guardian.
Some families were almost entirely wiped out in the disaster, losing eight or 10 members.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described a “catastrophe of enormous proportions” and blamed the disaster on the climate emergency.
“It tells us that climate change is serious, it’s here,” Ramaphosa said as he visited the flooded metropolitan area of eThekwini, which includes Durban, shortly after the floods. “We can no longer put off what we need to do and what steps we need to take to address climate change.”
Others echoed Ramaphosa’s warning.
“This is just the beginning of a series of extreme weather events linked to climate change… Africa pollutes the least and suffers the most from climate change,” said Ibrahima Cheikh Diong, Managing Director of African Risk Capacity, an agency created by the African Union to help governments better plan for disasters and mitigate their impact.
Poor people living in makeshift settlements built on steep, unstable gorges around Durban have been hardest hit by the floods. Most have inadequate or non-existent drainage systems and the houses are sometimes flimsy shacks that offer little protection from the elements.
Fernaaz Hussain, a 35-year-old coordinator for aid agency Islamic Relief, who lives in Durban, said she initially thought the rain was just part of the city’s tropical climate, but that she got worried when she didn’t stop.
“It was just relentless. There was just leaf after leaf and you couldn’t see anything beyond it. It just didn’t stop. It just got worse and worse. I never saw anything such in my life. The rain was so strong and the wind so strong that we were afraid of the windows [would] pause,” Hussain said.
She described shipping containers floating on highways and an oil tanker stranded on Durban’s famous beach.
“There is nothing you can do to help yourself. You just feel totally helpless. And tomorrow it could happen again and there is nothing we can do about it,” she said.
Experts say the impact of the climate crisis is increasingly evident across Africa, with tens of millions of people suffering from drought in the Sahel and parts of East Africa, while that the southeast coast of the continent is hit by intense storms.
The World Weather Attribution (WWA) network of scientists, which first understood the causes of extreme weather events, said climate change had made heavy rains along the southeast coast of Africa at the times stronger and more likely.
“Once again we see how those least responsible for climate change are suffering the consequences,” said Friederike Otto, co-founder of WWA, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London.
After Tropical Storm Ana slammed into the region in January, Tropical Cyclone Batsirai hit Madagascar in early February, followed in quick succession by Tropical Storm Dumako and Tropical Cyclones Emnati and Gombe.
WWA scientists used weather observations and computer simulations to compare precipitation patterns under the current climate to those in the pre-industrial zone, before global warming.
They focused on two of the wettest periods – during Storm Ana in Malawi and Mozambique and during Cyclone Batsirai in Madagascar.
“In both cases, the results show that storm-associated rainfall has been made more intense by climate change and that extreme rainfall events like these have become more frequent,” WWA said in a report of their findings. .
Their findings were consistent with broader climate research showing that global warming can increase the frequency and intensity of precipitation, although it is difficult to determine exactly how much climate change influences extreme events due to the lack of High quality historical rainfall records for the region.
The South African Meteorological Service said that while it is impossible to attribute an individual event to the climate crisis, “Globally, all forms of severe and extreme weather…are becoming more frequent and more extremes than in the recent past (as a direct result of global warming and associated climate change). future and with increasing frequency.
Many African countries are ill-prepared for such disasters.
Although the most industrialized country on the continent, South Africa is struggling to provide rapid and effective aid to flood victims. One of the reasons for the water shortage among those displaced by the floods in and around Durban is that around half of the local government’s fleet of 100 water tankers proved unusable when authorities ordered their deployment last week. Thousands of soldiers have now been deployed to help the relief operation.
Analysts say extreme weather events can contribute to political instability across the continent. In South Africa, the repeated failure to offer quick and effective aid to victims has exacerbated a general lack of confidence in the African National Congress, in power since 1994.
“It’s just normal people helping each other. I had more support from strangers. I won’t even ask the government. Funds always disappear and never reach the right people,” Husain said.
Police were forced to use tear gas to disperse protesters angry at the authorities’ lack of assistance.
“It is only because ANC officials routinely ignore it in desperate times like these that so many people are convinced that the party is hopelessly corrupt and that even the relief funds against the floods will be robbed,” commentator Stephen Grootes wrote in an op-ed on the Maverick Daily News site.
Sean Christie of Médecins Sans Frontières said the NGO was working with local health authorities to provide nurses and counselors to flood victims.
“When it comes to psychosocial mental health, we have seen very many needs,” he told the Guardian.