Flood resilience should be a key focus for SA
As flood events become more frequent and severe, South Africa will need to lift its game in disaster management to become more resilient.
This means not just better maintenance of infrastructure, but the building of the necessary expertise and resource base to recover more quickly from flood damage. According to Andries Fourie, Senior Technologist in disaster and risk management at SRK Consulting, there is a danger of entering a downward spiral from natural disasters.
“We can already see how countries in our region are regularly subject to cyclone events, and struggle to rebuild what has been lost,” said Fourie. “Even before they can recover from one devasting flood or cyclone, another will arrive and set them back even further.”
The recent flooding in KwaZulu-Natal province – after unprecedented rainfall levels – has placed huge demands on disaster management agencies at municipal, provincial and national level. With climate change driving more variable weather patterns, the risk of similar events in future is growing, he warned.
“We need to understand the dangers of compounded and complex disasters, where there are multiple impacts at the same time – each needing to be quickly addressed and then mitigated in future,” he said. “Floods can cause immediate damage which leads to displaced people forced from their homes, for instance; but soon there could be a health crisis as lack of sanitation can lead to the rapid spread of water-borne diseases.”
Unrelated consequences of flooding
Beyond the direct and indirect consequences of flooding could be an unrelated event such as a pandemic, which needs to be addressed simultaneously. Dr Herman Booysen, principal geographic information scientist at SRK Consulting, highlighted the importance of properly implementing existing policies and frameworks as a vital pillar of building resilience.
“Much of a municipality’s disaster risk reduction is done through the Integrated Development Plan and the Spatial Development Framework,” Booysen pointed out. “These can provide the necessary guidelines and specifications for flood lines and floodwalls for new developments, for example. Where these frameworks are not competently prepared and fully implemented, the community becomes exposed to significant disaster risk.”
Among the goals of the Integrated development plan (IDP) is the identification of key projects to reduce risk to infrastructure and human life, he explained. This could include improving the municipality’s resilience to flooding by installing or upgrading the stormwater infrastructure to channel water effectively away from areas at risk.
Among the roles of the Spatial Development Framework (SDF) is the specifying of requirements for development in various areas the municipality, based on the local conditions and risk levels.
This demands that municipal officials approach these tasks in a disciplined and systematic manner, and there is ongoing coordination between the relevant departments in a municipality – included disaster risk management.
“In addition to ensuring the application of the IDP and SDF, municipalities also need to draft and review these documents as required (the IDP is drafted every five years, reviewed yearly and the SDF is drafted every 10 years, reviewed yearly), – especially in the light of climate change,” he said. “As rainfall patterns become more variable and intense, the infrastructure must be adapted and upgraded accordingly.”
Booysen emphasised that timeous and well-considered expenditure on disaster risk mitigation will be more than paid back by the reduced spending required to recover from a natural disaster. The less prepared a community is for these events, the more damage will be caused and the longer the recovery will take. The cost of this disruption – in terms of economic activity alone – can be substantial, as was recently witnessed in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Careful attention to the municipal frameworks and regulations will go a long way to building resilience to disasters,” he said. “By planning ahead and investing strategically in the right infrastructure, millions can be saved in future recovery efforts. Most importantly, communities can get back to work more quickly – keeping up the economic momentum necessary for a speedy recovery before the next event.”
Fourie said a fundamental starting point for many municipalities is to at least maintain their current levels of resilience by cleaning and maintaining stormwater infrastructure. He had witnessed system decay such as concrete panels on water canals coming loose, allowing scoring to quickly damage these facilities. Debris in canals also restricts the free flow of water, raising the risk of overflowing and damage to riparian zones and the surrounding area.
“Natural watercourses also need to be well maintained and cleared, with regular removal of trees and other large debris,” he said. “These can block the flow under bridges, for example, and cause flooding of riverbanks and road crossings – with associated damage.”
In his experience, many municipalities are only doing “the basics” rather than planning ahead with preventative strategies that could enhance their resilience to disaster. Booysen noted that a proactive approach was particularly necessary given the growing populations of many towns due to urbanisation and migration. Widespread conditions of poverty also added to communities’ vulnerability to natural disasters.
“The increased disaster risk facing communities today is therefore not only the result of greater frequency of heavy rainfall and flooding,” he said. “It is also based on the reduced capacity of all levels of government to cope with the results. Building this capacity is vital to creating more flood resilience.”
The route of regional cyclones in the SADC
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