Building resilient cities should be a priority for all of us

Okuhle Bob, 8, right, and Sinolutho Ngalo, 9, wade through floodwater in the Kuyga informal settlement
MISERABLE CONDITIONS: Okuhle Bob, 8, right, and Sinolutho Ngalo, 9, wade through floodwater in the Kuyga informal settlement

A few days ago, the Eastern Cape was hit by devastating floods that have so far claimed the lives of more than 10 people and displaced thousands of others.

Nelson Mandela Bay, particularly Kariega, and the Buffalo City Metro have been hardest hit by the heavy downpours, though the devastation has been felt across many other parts of the province.

The floods in the Eastern Cape came months after several parts of KwaZulu-Natalwere ravaged by floods so devastating that the national government was compelled to classify the affected areas as disaster areas.

In these floods too, tens of lives were lost, with many of the deaths occurring in uThukela district, which includes the town of Ladysmith (now uMnambithi).

Over the past few months, other parts of SA, including some areas in Gauteng and the Western Cape, have experienced severe inclement weather that has caused billions of rand in infrastructure damage.

Scientific research indicates that there is an increase not only in the frequency of flooding events that SA has been experiencing over the past few years, but also in the severity of these events.

Coastal regions in particularly are on the receiving end of this crisis but inland areas have not been spared.

This is the direct result of climate change — long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns due to natural factors and human activities.

Since the 1880s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to the emissions of greenhouse gases in processes such as energy generation (burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas) and commercial agriculture.

SA, like many other countries, has a national climate change adaptation strategy.

Though this strategy is comprehensive, it has failed to prevent, or even manage, climate change-related catastrophes.

At the heart of the problem is that our country has a serious lack of risk-informed urban planning.

This kind of approach to urban planning is focused on designing and developing urban spaces that can withstand and adapt to various environmental hazards, social vulnerabilities and related challenges.

The apartheid spatial planning that still defines SA spatiality was not developed with climate change in mind.

Unfortunately, not much has been done to update and redesign our cities to respond to this modern challenge.

The implications are evident in the lack of resilience of even our most industrial and developed cities such as Johannesburg, Durban, Nelson Mandela Bay and Cape Town.

A week ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa urged the public to keep safe by heeding weather alerts and exercising greater care and restraint on the roads in poor weather conditions.

Though this is sensible advice, it reflects poor understanding of why floods such as those that battered the Eastern Cape occur.

It also reflects a lack of understanding by the national government that lack of resilience rather than the poor choices of drivers on the road is the real problem.

Had the president understood this, he would know that more critical measures include river channelisation — where rivers are dredged, widened and deepened to improve their flow capacity and reduce the risk of flooding — and the development of flood-retention basins.

These are designed to temporarily store excess water during heavy rainfall or flooding.

They significantly reduce the risk of downstream flooding.

The land question is also critical to the multiplicity of solutions needed to address climate change.

More parks, urban forests and other green spaces must be established in cities and towns.

In addition, sustainable human settlements must be built.

But this is not possible unless the government can expropriate land for public good and use.

The government, private sector and civil society must take climate change seriously.

Building resilient cities must be the priority for all of us — including us geographers in academia.

If we don’t do this, many more cities will be flooded. And many more lives will be lost.


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