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Dangerous Repercussions and Limited Responses: Floods and Climate Change in South Africa

On 8 April the South African provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape were hit by disastrous flooding. This comes after neighboring countries such as Mozambique, Malawi, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe experienced successive tropical storms, i.e. Ana, Batsirai, Emnati, and Gombe from January to March. 

Beyond these recent climate-related disasters, Southern African countries have long faced challenges of recovering from climate disasters. In 2019, tropical cyclones Idai and Kenneth leveraged global attention on risks of climate change. While some still see climate change as a faraway phenomenon with climate change and global warming predictions usually presented at distant time horizons (e.g. 2030, 2050, and 2100), there could be no hiding from the fact that this African region is undergoing a protracted climate emergency and global temperatures have risen significantly over the past decade due to global warming.

Serious Repercussions

Climate change is affecting the lives of people in South Africa and exacerbating debt and poverty gaps. Furthermore, it poses a major threat to water resources, food security, health and infrastructure and harms the ecosystem and biodiversity. Towards strengthening the engagement of national departments in providing relief, rehabilitating the affected communities, and preventing looting and seizure of aid coming from relief agencies, the recent episodes of floods have been designated as a national disaster. The cost of flood damage accounts for a significant share of the national GDP in South Africa, which limits investment in other national development goals. The negative consequences of flooding in South Africa can be detailed as follows:  

Destruction of Infrastructure and Exacerbation of Displacement: Floods severely harmed road and hospital infrastructure and the port of Durban, being one of the largest shipping terminals in Africa, disrupted railways, communications infrastructure, fuel and food supplies, and had repercussions on the economy, resulting in a loss of resources accompanied by a rise in the cost of services and goods, a delay in development project, and a drag on economic growth. Additionally, floods triggered the displacement of more than 40,000 people, claimed the lives of more than 440 people, and destroyed ZAR757 million worth of infrastructure, homes and businesses, including at least 248 schools.

Outbreak of Epidemics and Deterioration of Health Services: Health facilities crumbled, services were disrupted, and access to health care services was hindered in the affected areas. The health situation deteriorated due to the transmission of waterborne diseases such as the Cholera and malaria, amid warnings of the World Health Organization (WHO) of the dangers of floods on human health. Overall, flooding is usually associated with an increase in climate-related health emergencies, which the WHO responds to by adopting the One Health approach, an integrated approach that balances the health of people, animals, and ecosystems.

Loss of Livelihood: South Africa experienced erratic rainfall and floods that affected water, agriculture, and energy sectors, devastated existing livestock, reduced agricultural productivity, exacerbated food insecurity crises, and halted economic activities, leading to disruption of normal life beyond the duration of the flooding and a decline in purchasing power due to loss of livelihoods, the decrease of land value, and the increased vulnerabilities of local communities, resulting in mass migration and population displacement.

Limited Response

South Africa has made efforts to respond proactively to climate change by introducing climate-related laws, including laws on adaptation policies, green energy investments, and just transition practices. In 2019, the Carbon Tax Act was approved, allowing for the application of fees on greenhouse gas emissions from fuel combustion and industrial activities. The South African National Development Plan (NDP) recognizes the importance of climate change planning, particularly for poor communities, through addressing development challenges in a way that ensures environmental sustainability and embraces climate resilience. Additionally, South Africa signed the Climate Change Bill that requires all local and regional governments to conduct climate change needs assessments, develop climate change response plans, and integrate response plans into all the existing social development plans.

In the same vein, the South African government has activated the Restoring Family Links (RFL) mechanism in KwaZulu-Natal to help the displaced people to find one another and provide them with shelter, food, and psychological support (a joint action plan on climate-vulnerable areas is still lacking, though) Moreover, aid for emergency services and climate disaster reconstruction have been increased. The Disaster Management Act of 2002 granted the National Disaster Management Center various powers, allowing the national executive to assist and protect citizens and property and provide relief by directing and coordinating the activities of all government agencies and allocating government resources as necessary to respond to disasters. Furthermore, the Local Government Climate Change Support Programme highlights the significant role of local governments as key actors in responding to climate change.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also declared a state of national disaster to respond to the April 2022 floods, allocating $67 million to help those affected, deploying 10,000 soldiers to assist in the search and rescue efforts, and delivering basic services to flood victims. In this regard, the South African government announced that it would partially finance the reconstruction efforts, capitalizing on the funds allocated to the National Fund to combat Covid-19. Furthermore, Cape Town local administration has launched a flood prevention initiative that encompasses developing water drainage systems in preparation for the upcoming weather season, allocating ZAR48 million to the initiative.

Relatedly, the South African government has approved three bills to provide a more sustainable climate response, most notably a bill establishing the Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission (PCCCC), as part of a new three-pillar climate policy that encompasses the implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCS), Low-Emission Development Strategy (LEDS), and National Waste Management Strategy.

Ironically, Durban –which is the city most hit by floods– was the first city in South Africa to develop a climate change plan in 2014. If this is any indicator, it is demonstrative of the city’s weak capability to address climate change and the lack of rapid response. There is a need to strengthen climate action plans at all levels, including infrastructure rehabilitation in the country. Several climate change organizations have filed criminal complaints against South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and a number of cabinet ministers for negligence in failing to take “practical action to address the climate crisis. The Climate Justice Charter Movement (CJCM) blames the government for its responsibility to protect vulnerable people in squatter settlements and rural areas against flood risks, poor policy coherence and harmonization, the limited human and financial resources, and lack of skills.

Pending Mechanisms

Driven by the principle of environmental sustainability, climate awareness of the risks of climate change-related crises and disasters, and the early warning systems for floods, cyclones, drought, and sea level rise that help avoid the damage and risks associated with climate disasters and given the need for developed countries to fulfill their commitments of reducing carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement in 2015 towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and the need to enhance climate awareness, integrate climate change response policies in development plans and different sectors, invest in green infrastructure, and work toward work toward a low carbon food system path, South Africa developed a number of mechanisms aimed at climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Setting Ambitious Environmental Targets: Durban, the largest city in the KwaZulu-Natal province, released its 2020 Climate Action Plan, outlining strategies to green its energy sector, improve waste management, and conserve water, towards becoming carbon-neutral by 2050 while enhancing the concepts of green and environmental infrastructure by highlighting the role of natural infrastructure in mitigating climate risks, including open green spaces, bodies of water, and green roof and walls.

Improving Climate Justice: Climate litigation cases are likely to be increasingly brought before international and regional human rights bodies, amid the growing local climate issues and official standards that address the relationship between climate change and human rights, to establish the accountability of countries responsible for climate change and apply the “polluter pays” principle by compensating developing countries, particularly African ones, through funding climate change adaptation policies and overseeing activities that cause carbon emissions. This has been evidenced by the gathering of hundreds of climate activists from all over South Africa outside the Parliament on 9 November 2021, calling for the implementation of the Climate Justice Charter, protesting against the excessive use of fossil fuels and the government’s support for coal-fired industrial plants, and advocating the need to rely on clean and renewable energy sources as part of the transition to a green economy.

Activating the Carbon Neutrality Policy: Responding to the growing threat of climate change, countries around the world are working to figure out how to decarbonize their economies to reach net zero emissions by 2050. In this vein, South Africa developed an investment plan in the energy sector within the Integrated Resources Plan, a Green Transport Strategy, and several energy efficiency programmes, introduced a Carbon Tax, and mapped out the Low-Emission Development Strategy that focus on mitigating carbon emissions across four main sectors, namely energy, industry, agriculture, and land use. This transition will be driven by decarbonization, decentralization, and digitalization.

Supporting Mitigation and Adaptation Policies: Developed countries have likely fallen short of the $100 billion commitment to help low-income countries adapt to the negative effects of climate change. Climate adaptation spending costs South Africa too much where it counted for 4 percent of the country’s GDP which exacerbates poverty rates. The 2019 and 2022 floods made clear the importance of promoting climate action plans in all urban cities in South Africa, along with adopting accelerated adaptation mechanisms and mitigation measures to prevent further greenhouse gas emissions and developing a comprehensive national response that integrates climate change into decision-making processes in all sectors.

In short, the South African government recognizes that climate change poses a major challenge to its development, with the country struggling with its effects that have devastated livelihoods, economies, agriculture, water, food systems, infrastructure investments, public health, biodiversity, and ecosystems. As such, addressing climate change requires an urgent joint responsibility as its effects will likely multiply the threats and emerging risks, increase competition for scarce resources, exacerbate the existing societal rifts, and escalate climate chaos and the challenge of climate justice. 

While climate change is a global phenomenon, it has tangible effects at the regional and local levels. African concerns must be taken into consideration by implementing the priority needs of local communities with regard to financing climate adaptation, along with transforming African coastal cities into smart, resilient and sustainable cities to address the impacts and risks of climate change.

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