South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized country, has largely escaped the tropical cyclones that regularly hit its neighbors.
But last week storms hit the city of Durban on the east coast, causing severe flooding and landslides that killed more than 440 people.
These are the main questions behind the floods and devastation.
Did climate change play a role?
Meteorologists say the storms were not tropical.
Instead, the rains were part of a normal South African weather system called a “cut-off low,” which can cause heavy rain and cold weather.
“Low pressure systems that shut down are common. Their frequency gets high during the fall and spring, and they vary in strength,” said Puseletso Mofokeng of the South African Weather Service.
Some of these systems are very intense, causing heavy rain, hail, strong and potentially damaging winds and heavy snowfall.
At a low in April 2019, 85 people were killed in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces.
If the storm system itself is a well-known phenomenon, the difference this time around was the intensity of the Flood.
Here, experts point the finger at climate change — warmer seas charge the atmosphere with more moisture, which is then dumped as rainfall.
“We’ve seen three (severe) floods in Durban in less than 10 years. Is it related to climate change? Absolutely,” said Mary Galvin of the University of Johannesburg.
“We are feeling the impact of what will certainly be unpredictable, more frequent, severe and extreme weather events.”
A recent UN report says what was once considered a one-in-a-hundred-year flood could happen several times a year by 2050.
Why is Durban prone to flooding?
Durban suffers from flooding every year, but not as bad as this one.
The city is built on a hilly area with many gorges and canyons – a topography conducive to flooding, according to city planner Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
If the ground isn’t properly “stabilized in the hilly areas, it’s obvious you’re going to get landslides,” she said.
Some have suggested that Durban’s stormwater drainage system may not have been properly maintained, prompting the authorities of the 187-year-old city conflict.
The city of Durban is not alone in dealing with extreme weather conditions in South Africa.
Along the west coast, Cape Town nearly ran out of water during a 2018 drought.
“Climate forecasts and all models show that wet areas will become wetter and dry areas will be drier. So Durban… will unfortunately become wetter,” Galvin said.
What about plans?
Durban is one of South Africa’s fastest growing cities, with economic growth exceeding the national average in 2015.
Massive, unplanned migration created housing shortages, resulting in the explosion of shacks, locally called informal settlements.
“The way South African cities were designed was very exclusive in nature,” says planner Magidimisha-Chipungu.
“The urban planning and legacy of apartheid (placed) the urban poor on the periphery and in the low-lying areas” along riverbanks, she said.
About a quarter of the metro’s 3.9 million people live in 550 informal settlements in the city. According to Galvin, at least 164 were built on floodplains.
A host of recent crises have further sapped resources – the coronavirus pandemic, massive unemployment, and the riots and looting that erupted last year.
It’s “like the seven plagues” happening one after the other, Galvin said.
(This story was not edited by DailyExpertNews staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)