After the relentless rain, South Africa sounds the alarm on the climate crisis
Many are still missing after this month’s floods. Extreme weather is becoming more frequent, and it can be devastating.
Survivors of South Africa’s devastating floods have described “sheet upon sheet of relentless rain” that washed away entire houses, bridges and roads, killing about 450 people and making thousands homeless.
The storm, which delivered close to an entire year’s usual rainfall in 48 hours, took meteorologists by surprise and has been blamed by experts on climate change. The new disaster comes after three tropical cyclones and two tropical storms hit south-east Africa in just six weeks in the first months of this year.
The full extent of the devastation caused by the floods in South Africa this month is yet to become clear, with many victims still missing and authorities still learning of new damage around the eastern coastal city of Durban. Many tens of thousands of people remain without water, and there are rising concerns about an outbreak of infectious disease.
Uzair Ismail, 35, said he had been forced to flee his home in central Durban with his wife and eight-year-old when water and mud flooded in through doors, windows and plumbing in the middle of the night when the storm struck almost two weeks ago.
“We were lucky to get out alive … Slowly, slowly we had built ourselves up to a livable home with a few possessions and we had left everything. But others lost much more. We are safe at least,” Ismail told the Guardian.
Some families were almost entirely wiped out in the disaster, losing eight or 10 members.
The South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, described a “catastrophe of enormous proportions” and attributed the disaster to the climate emergency.
“It is telling us that climate change is serious, it is here,” Ramaphosa said as he visited the flooded metropolitan area of eThekwini, which includes Durban, shortly after the floods. “We no longer can postpone what we need to do, and the measures we need to take to deal with climate change.”
Others have echoed Ramaphosa’s warning.
“This is just the beginning of a series of extreme weather events that are linked to climate change … Africa pollutes least and suffers most from climate change,” said Ibrahima Cheikh Diong, the director general of African Risk Capacity, an agency set up by the African Union to help governments better plan for disasters and mitigate their impact.
Poor people living in makeshift settlements built on unstable, steep-sided gorges around Durban were worst affected by the floods. Most have inadequate or no drainage systems and homes are sometimes flimsy shacks that offer little protection against the elements.
Fernaaz Hussain, a 35-year-old coordinator for aid agency Islamic Relief, who lives in Durban, said she had first thought the rain was just part of the city’s tropical weather, but became worried when it did not stop.
“It was just relentless. There was just sheet after sheet and you couldn’t see anything beyond. It just did not stop. It just got worse and worse. I have never seen anything like it in my life. The rain was so heavy and the wind so strong we feared the windows [would] break,” Hussain said.
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