EPIC Durban Support for the April 2022 Floods
CommunityeThekwini Metropolitan Municipality
UniversityUniversity of KwaZulu-Natal
Focus AreasWater System Management
DisciplineBuilt Environment and Development Studies
Sustainable Development Goals11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
In early April of 2022, eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality (Durban) was devastated by torrential rains and flooding. In some areas, over 250 mm of rain was recorded overnight; an amount that displaced thousands of people, including residents in the City’s 600 informal settlements, damaging over 19,000 dwellings and leading to the loss of 436 lives. To compound this disaster further, not only humans, but also animals and vegetation were uprooted by the floods, threatening the region’s delicate biodiversity. Additionally, some of the displaced flora and fauna included dangerous reptiles and highly toxic plants that residents later came into contact with. While damages caused by the floods included not only major financial losses to the city and its residents (estimated to be over US$ 1.4 billion), this extreme weather event also brought intense emotional and physical trauma to its victims. In the days immediately following the floods, some residents struggled to locate missing loved ones, while many others were forced to seek emergency shelter after losing their houses and possessions.
Alarmingly, leading scientists at institutions such as the University of Cape Town predict that floods of this caliber will increase in frequency and in a less seasonally-defined manner as Africa and the rest of the world navigate the extreme weather consequences of climate change. During the April 12th flooding, it was observed that much of the damage was caused by blockages of bridges and culverts and the resulting diversion through adjacent infrastructure, by trees, plant materials (mostly alien invasive plants, which have shallow root systems), plastic waste, and sediments. Such blockages highlight growing concerns for the impact of climate change on pre-existing water system management problems in the region. Compounding the sheer scale and intensity of the event, insufficient data about informal settlements prior to and during emergencies means that it is difficult to accurately provide relief resources, as well as accurately account for human and property damages. Fortunately, though, critical flood-related adaptation work is already underway in Durban, work that saved hundreds of lives during the April floods and work that holds great promise for South African communities’ capacity to overcome climate change related challenges.
Professor Cathy Sutherland of the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), has been leading research efforts to respond to climate change in Durban’s informal settlements for numerous years now, and reports that the most impactful of these efforts can be found in the collaboration of community members and local institutions. One shining example of this kind of work occurred in an informal settlement called Quarry Road West (QRW), where UKZN staff and students, eThekwini Municipality officials, local community members, and the Palmiet River Watch conservancy utilized a WhatsApp group, called the Community Flood Early Warning System (CFEWS), to link QRW residents with information from the City’s Forecast Early Warning System (FEWS), providing real time data on rainfall intensity and stream levels that is typically unavailable to these groups. Community leaders from QRW have been participating in transdisciplinary research with UKZN and eThekwini Municipality officials since 2014, conducting flood and fire risk mapping prior to April 2022 through a unique partnership forged by the EPIC (Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities) Africa Network. The mission of EPIC Africa and the broader EPIC-N Network is to bring the intellectual resources of universities and their students to the service of local governments and communities to address the challenges of the 21st century.
In the past, CFEWS relied on residents higher up in the catchment to report high stream levels during intense rainfall events, providing QRW residents with roughly 20 minutes warning before these conditions reached downstream to the settlement. This was reported to be precious time that could mean the difference between a safe escape and being trapped in your home. In at least half a dozen high rainfall events during the past five years, QFEWS has allowed residents to evacuate and save their possessions before disastrous flooding occurred. Linking to the City’s FEWS system allows intense rainfall events to be identified earlier through radar and provides more lead-in time for communities of QRW to respond. On the evening of 12th April 2022, Mr Smiso Bhengu, Senior Climate Scientist in eThekwini Municipality and Professor Sutherland were in QRW alerting residents to the dangerous conditions being forecast by the South African Weather Services and FEWS. During the night, over 200 dwellings were washed away when the river was diverted through the settlement due to blockage of the two bridges immediately upstream. Had residents been sheltering in these dwellings during the night, hundreds more lives would have been lost in Durban. Ultimately, only one unrelated fatality occurred due to electrocution by an illegal electricity connection. Undoubtedly, CFEWS, the familiarity of community members with that messaging, and the actions of Bhengu, Sutherland and community leaders saved many lives that night. Post-flood, the EPIC Durban project continued to provide support to QRW flood victims through emotional counseling services, which was identified as an urgent need by South Africa’s Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Honorable Barbara Creecy, during her follow-up visit to the settlement after the floods. These counseling sessions would have been difficult to coordinate and implement in a short period of time were it not for the EPIC Durban framework being in place, which provided transportation and access for UKZN student and intern counselors to settlement residents.
Following the success of QFEWS during the April flood, attempts to upscale this approach to community leaders in other vulnerable settlements, as well as how to apply this successful project model to other critical issues in the region, have begun. Community- Ecosystem-based Adaptation (CEBA) and disaster risk reduction are larger goals that Durban hopes to address more fully in the coming years, as is prescribed by the Durban Climate Change Strategy. Progress towards these goals has been made through projects such as the Transformative River Management Programme (TRMP) and Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SuDS), which seek to mobilize adjacent communities to manage local water systems in a manner that mimics natural processes, so as to reduce damages and save lives in future rainfall events. These projects serve as an excellent opportunity to create employment opportunities for vulnerable communities, while simultaneously bringing those groups to the forefront of addressing some of the region’s greatest climate-related concerns. Looking forward, the creation of reforestation, wildfire management, and sustainable urbanization projects offers room for further implementation of the EPIC model in critical regional issues.
As Professor Sutherland reflects on the lessons learned from the April 2022 floods, she believes that transdisciplinary research will continue to lie at the heart of meaningful adaptation and mitigation work in South Africa, particularly when that research can engage local residents, harness the innovation of students and young people, and inform the policy-making habits of municipal officials. It is through this holistic, knowledge-based collaboration that is given life through project models like EPIC that a sustainable future can be secured. Further information can be found about EPIC and the Durban Research Action Partnerships in these links, respectively.
Photo 1 caption: Flooding within Durban was greatly exacerbated by blockages of the City’s infrastructure spanning rivers, causing rivers to divert through communities and other vulnerable infrastructure.
Photos 2 and 3: Quarry Road West Informal Settlement before and after the flooding event of April 2022. The two bridges in the bottom left corner of Photo 3 became blocked by debris causing the river to divert through the settlement, particularly the top left corner.
 eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality is the name of the Municipality within which the City of Durban is located, as well as the local government structure governing the Municipality. In this article, Durban refers to the Municipality as the geographic location, and eThekwini Municipality refers to the local government structure.