DURBAN, South Africa — In 2009, officials in the port city of Durban moved hundreds of residents from their tin huts near the city center to a flood-prone area south of the city as they prepared to host next year’s World Football Cup.
The new settlement, a narrow cluster of drywall slums, was built without electricity and sandwiched between a noisy highway and a river. Authorities acknowledged the risk of flooding, but promised residents they would move into permanent homes within three months, recalled Themba Lushaba, who relocated with her girlfriend.
After thirteen years and four devastating floods, Mr. Lushaba, 34, remains in the settlement and is still waiting for that permanent residence. The most recent flood, following heavy rain last week, was the worst ever. The water rising from the side of his belly button in the pitch black forced him and his neighbors to take shelter in a remote field, shivering under umbrellas all night.
South Africa suffered one of the worst natural disasters in its recorded history last week as the Durban region left at least 448 deaths, thousands of homes destroyed and shocking scenes of destruction left behind. Shipping containers toppled like Legos on a major highway. Holiday homes hung from muddy slopes with washed-out support posts. Tin hut houses were buried.
Some scientists attribute the intensity of storms to climate change. But the disaster highlighted an often-overlooked truth in the fight against extreme weather: Protecting people is about addressing social as well as environmental issues.
Activists and academics said the failure of government leaders in South Africa to address a longstanding housing crisis fueled by poverty, unemployment and inequality played a key role in the high death toll from last week’s storms.
“Often, not only in South Africa but in many other developing countries, there is simply no money, no expertise, and no government will to invest properly to protect the poorest in society.” said Jasper Knight, a professor of physical geography at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Most of the destruction occurred in makeshift settlements of rotten structures that were flooded. Poor South Africans often settle in these communities because they are close to job opportunities not available in their distant hometowns. Many can’t afford more stable, permanent housing, either. So they build tin huts wherever they can find land, often in places unsuitable for housing.
When it comes to Durban and its environs, these places are often in low valleys next to rivers or on the loose soil of steep slopes – among the most dangerous to be hit by heavy rainstorms like the week before. .
Even many planned communities in the area occupy environmentally unsafe land, partly as part of the legacy of the apartheid government that forced the black majority to live in neglected areas.
Addressing the nation Monday night, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged the fatal shortcomings of the government’s housing policy.
The process of recovering from demolition “will also include the construction of homes at suitable locations and measures to protect residents of these areas from such adverse weather events in the future,” he said.
While heavy rains are common this time of year, Durban is one of the few cities on Africa’s southeast coast to see an increase in precipitation that some scientists attribute to climate change. In about two days, eThekwini, the municipality that includes Durban and its surrounding communities, is equivalent to a month’s worth of precipitation, scientists at the University of Cape Town said.
This drenched weather came as the area was still dry from devastating rain and flooding in 2017 and 2019 – and hundreds of residents displaced by flooding at the time were still dying in transit camps. More than 70 people were killed in 2019.
Mbulelo Baloyi, spokesman for the housing department in KwaZulu-Natal, which includes Durban, said rebuilding after 2017 was slowed by a complex process to obtain government contracts to build new homes. Mr Baloyi said that when areas that survived this flood leveled again in 2019, the national government stepped in and the process was streamlined.
The government is already building modest, prefabricated homes for transit camps for some of the estimated 40,000 people displaced by this year’s flooding.
In 2018, the city of Durban identified growing informal settlements as a major challenge in the city’s response to climate change. And after the flood of 2019, the city presented a plan that calls for creating more renewable energy sources, reducing car transport and making informal settlements climate resilient.
Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi, professor of climate, water and food systems at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said that despite these commitments, city officials are still not doing enough to combat the devastating consequences of climate change through economic and social development.
Creating job opportunities in various parts of the country can alleviate the desperation that drives some people to stay in informal settlements, which are often the only places they can find accommodation in crowded cities with most jobs.
Mr. Lushaba’s family own a campus in Uzumbe, a rural community an hour south of Durban, with three rondavels standing next to a four-room house made of concrete blocks.
But with no job prospects in the area, he left in 2008 to move into a tin cottage in Durban, where his mother has lived since 1996 to do household chores. Like many people in a country where the unemployment rate is now over 35 percent, Mr. Lushaba was unable to find a regular job. He occasionally works as a security guard in a nearby community.
In 2009, Mr. Lushaba was reinstated when local leaders used a state law to remove slum settlements from the eyes of World Cup visitors. He is desperate for a job to rent a permanent home and is losing hope that the government will honor its commitment to provide a home.
“They’re telling us we just have to wait our turn,” he said. “Government always makes many promises but never comes back to make it.”
The land below Mr. Lushaba’s transit camp in Isipingo county was once a wetland buffer for the neighboring Sipingo River, he said. Box-like, low structures, with a maze of muddy passages between them. Black wires carrying the unauthorized electrical connections that residents have connected to them are spread around the sidewalk.
Mr. Lushaba said in 2011 the camp had been flooded for the first time in two years since he moved to the camp. It happened again in 2017 and 2019 and now last week. Residents go through the same ritual each time: They ascend to higher ground, allow the water to descend, then rake the mud in their one-room home and have to identify which items can be salvaged and which need to be discarded. out.
Scenes like this were playing in the area this week. In the town of Inanda, north of Durban, in a neighborhood of concrete block houses under a collapsed bridge, a house where four family members are believed to be buried has been left with a pile of mud, broken trees, mattresses and other furniture.
On Tuesday, Mr. Lushaba and his girlfriend put a light blue mattress on a sofa they had set up in front of their house. Shoes, fans, and other items were left to dry on the corrugated tin roof of their house.
“It pains me to stay here,” he said. “Everywhere is dirty.”
Ravi Pillay, state director for economic development, said Mr. Lushaba’s complaints were understandable.
“I don’t think it was located in a bit of a low-lying area,” he said of the Isipingo transit camp. “At the time, there was no appreciation of the flood risk we have now.”
Still, some wonder whether government officials even now have the authority to act with the necessary urgency.
According to Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, about a quarter of the eThekwini population lives in informal settlements. Local planning officials, unable to keep up with the rising demand for housing, wrote an email response to questions.
“If measures are not taken to reduce the effects of flooding in the future, the port city is heading towards a very bleak and disastrous future,” he said.