Severe storms can’t all be blamed on climate change

2008-12-28 00:00

THE KwaZulu-Natal government will spend about R4 billion to restore and rebuild houses and infrastructure damaged by natural disasters that ravaged the province in 2008.

Since June, parts of KZN have been pounded by violent waves, ravaged by destructive storms and burnt by raging fires. More than 25 people have been killed and thousands left homeless.

In June floods tore through the south coast and claimed 13 lives, destroyed houses and damaged infrastructure, including roads and bridges. Local Government and Housing Department spokes man Lennox Mabaso said this was the government’s biggest disaster expense. “A total of R3,6 billion was allocated for rebuilding the damaged houses and infrastructure for the June floods in Umzinto. In the same month, losses added up to R19 million due to the fire storms throughout the province.”

In November storms wreaked havoc in Molweni and Amanzimtoti, killing 12 people and destroying hundreds of homes. “In Amanzimtoti R36 million was allocated and R21 million for Molweni,” Mabaso said.

More recently, about 40 homes were damaged in heavy rains and a storm in the Estcourt area and other parts of the province, amounting to damage estimated at R18 million. Mabaso said the allocated funds exclude the loss of agricultural and grazing land.

A study by the Disaster Mitigation for Sustainable Livelihoods Programme (DiMP) at the University of Cape Town has found that there are many factors that drive the losses. Director Ailsa Holloway said climate change is only one of them.

“I’m concerned that a lot of issues are being blamed on climate change. There are things around good management.” She said the study shows that recent disaster losses have been significantly driven by rapid urban growth and expansion.

“The severe run-off risk generated by rapidly hardening catchments now exceeds the capacity of existing services to manage the effects of heavy rain events. Rapid urban expansion and population growth have not been matched by investments in the redesign or maintenance of critical infrastructure,” Holloway added.

“Poor construction standards increase exposure to heavy rain, run-off and subsidence. Many low-income settlements affected are sited below road-level and exposed to endangering run-off due to limited storm-water capacity."

The Witness could not establish whether similar research has been done in this province. However, in the Molweni area there were media reports that the houses were washed away as a result of poor construction work. The claims have not been verified.

SA Weather Bureau forecaster Wisani Maluleke sees a strong link between hot weather and storms. “Each day we had storms in the province, temperatures were above 30 degrees Celsius.”

The chief director for air quality management and climate change in the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Peter Lukey, said global warming is not so much a cause as a contributing factor in many disasters.

“We can’t blame anything specific on global warming,” he said. “However, these kinds of severe events will increase as a result of global warming. We will have far more unpredictable destructive events, and the increased likelihood of more of them.”

Lukey said global warming may lead to extreme weather patterns and health effects. “Global warming will have dramatic implications for us. There is a huge potential for the spread of diseases due to climate change. This can be caused by the extreme weather patterns that can happen in a short space of time.”

He said weather conditions may shift from “complete drought to complete flooding” within a short period”.

“Other effects include change in rainfall and the rise in sea levels. Increased temperatures cause heat waves and older people and children can get uncomfortable. That can cause increased evaporation in our dams and would have a potential impact in agriculture and plants.”

Lukey said the government is committed to reducing the use of greenhouse gases in South Africa. He said the country is actively engaged in global negotiations on issues of environmental care, and in future South Africa will have laws to encourage changes in public and industrial behaviour.

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