Clean-up efforts begin in Durban after the city's worst floods in over 100 years

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Durban received more than 300mm of rainfall in just 24 hours, leaving   a large part of the city under water. (PHOTO: Gallo/Getty Images)
Durban received more than 300mm of rainfall in just 24 hours, leaving a large part of the city under water. (PHOTO: Gallo/Getty Images)

Catastrophic is how President Cyril Ramaphosa described the flooding that devastated swathes of KwaZulu-Natal, leading to him declaring a state of disaster in the province. And catastrophic it is.

Some 435 people died, homes were washed away – leaving more than 7 000 homeless. Families were torn apart, schools and healthcare facilities decimated, roads and railways ruined, livelihoods destroyed – the heart-breaking litany of destruction caused by the floods goes on and on.

And now the people of KwaZulu-Natal are left to pick up the pieces. Damage is estimated to run in the region of R17 billion, although it’s anyone’s guess if that will be enough.

Experts are warning that government needs to fix the problems that led to the devastation in the first place. There are several ways to address the issues to ensure the province doesn’t have to endure such levels of catastrophe again, they say.

We take a closer look.

Floods, KwaZulu-Natal, rain, infrastructure, roads
More than 10 000 bags of litter were collected from Durban’s beaches. (PHOTO: Gallo/Getty Images)


Durban is no stranger to flooding, having experienced frequent floods over the past 100 years and often affected by terrible weather coming in off the Mozambican coast. These factors, driven by nature, add to the challenge. 

Land surface KZN’s topography is one of the reasons why the province is prone to destruction during heavy rainfall.

The type of soil found on the coastline is prone to erosion, says town planner John Forbes. “It can be likened to sugar – it will simply dissolve under rushing water.”

It’s made worse when on exposed steep slopes, as can be found on the Bluff or at uMdloti, he adds.

Location The province’s proximity to the warm Indian Ocean influences weather conditions. Hannelee Doubell, from the South African Weather Service, says a weather system called a cut-off low moved over the country from the west, causing the worst flooding in recent history.

“One can say that KZN got more than a month’s rainfall on one day – the most ever on record,” Doubell says.

During a 24-hour period on 11 April, Durban received more than 300mm of rainfall. In comparison, during previous episodes of flooding 165mm of rain fell on 22 April in 2019 and 108mm of rain fell on 10 October 2017.

Climate change Climate change is not solely responsible for the bouts of heavy rainfall, Doubell says. “However, it is generally accepted that climate change will lead to an increased probability of extreme weather and climate events to occur. Looking at the recent trends one could expect more floods in future.”

Floods, KwaZulu-Natal, rain, infrastructure, roads
Shipping containers floated down the N2 highway, close to Durban's old airport. (PHOTO: Gallo/Getty Images)

READ MORE | 'We have nothing left': KZN residents' harrowing tales after the flood from hell

Nature isn’t the only force that needs to be reckoned with – a lack of planning, red tape and too little accountability add to the problems plaguing the province.

Maintenance The storm-water drain system is not in good condition, says Forbes. This means trouble when there’s heavy rain because water can’t run through the drains as it should.

“Maintenance is not what is should be,” he explains. “Silting [when particles such as sand or clay build up] and blockages with vegetation, plastic bags and bottles are often the norm.”

Bureaucracy Instead of one department overseeing a particular function, various departments are in charge of smaller parts.

“The question of department silos is a factor,” Forbes says. “Say there is a parks department looking after verges, a solid-waste department collecting refuse and a roads and storm-water department all with slightly different responsibilities and nobody picking up the ball. This has often played a role in blockages.”

Littering “A lot of the [blockage] problem arises from a lack of recycling by the public,” he adds. “There’s a need to educate people to stop casually discarding rubbish in the road or nearest drain.”

Land ownership and accountability Apart from individuals owning their own properties, there are two other major class of landowners in KZN: the provincial government and the Ingonyama Trust.

In an ideal world movement from rural to urban areas, as is the case in many parts of KZN, would be properly planned but this hasn’t happened. There’s a serious lack of housing as more people move to urban areas. “This has resulted in greater densification with no planning and particularly no storm-water management control,” Forbes says.

Floods, KwaZulu-Natal, rain, infrastructure, roads
Petrol stations were among the numerous businesses damaged during the floods. (PHOTO: Onkgopotse Koloti)

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KwaZulu-Natal is a key transportation hub. The province plays a vital role as an entry/exit point for imports and exports, says economist Sanisha Packirisamy of Momentum Investments.

It’s also critical in the country’s tourism industry and is a major agricultural hub. More than 80% of the country’s sugar is produced in KZN. The province also accounts for 30% of the country’s dairy herd and 12% of chicken eggs and pigs. It’s crucial the road and rail infrastructure is given urgent attention given KZN’s role in supply chain and logistics of goods coming in via harbour and being transported across the country, Packirisamy says.

“The recent flooding damage puts the spotlight on geographic concentration risk. Transport by road is also too high, relative to the volume that should be transported by rail in South Africa. Developing the necessary infrastructure to move cargo from road to rail can have significantly positive socio-economic spin-offs and can lower the burden on road rehabilitation and traffic congestion.”

For now, the National Ports Authority has opened an alternative route to the Durban Port for the transportation of essential items.

“The long-term solution is expected to be completed over the next 12 months,” says Transnet spokesperson Ayanda Shezi.

Floods, KwaZulu-Natal, rain, infrastructure, roads
Finance minister Enoch Godongwana announced a R1-billion package to help the province get back on its feet. (PHOTO: GCIS)

Government’s efforts will be focused on helping the thousands of people who were affected by the recent floods. Finance minister Enoch Godongwana announced a R1-billion package to help the province get back on its feet.

Cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma says vouchers will be available for residents whose homes were partially damaged so they can start rebuilding.

Government has also started construction of temporary accommodation units.

The focus is on stabilisation, recovery and rehousing people who have lost homes while also restoring services, says President Cyril Ramaphosa. Alongside these efforts will be the long-term fixing of structural problems.

“We will focus on reconstruction and rebuilding, as many areas have been destroyed and devastated, including infrastructure.

“This will not only involve the construction and repair of major infrastructure, it will also involve the construction of houses in suitably located areas and mea­sures to protect the residents of these areas from adverse weather events in the future.”

Floods, KwaZulu-Natal, rain, infrastructure, roads
Roads washed away during the torrential rains leaving residents stranded. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

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