School of Life Sciences

The Durban Research Action Partnership and eThekwini Municipality’s Municipal Institute of Learning hosted a webinar on the response to the KwaZulu-Natal floods.

Webinar Delves into KZN Flood Disaster Management

The Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP) and eThekwini Municipality’s (EM) Municipal Institute of Learning (MILE) hosted a webinar where the municipality’s Disaster Management Unit spoke about its response to the severe floods experienced in KwaZulu-Natal in April 2022 while UKZN’s Professor Catherine Sutherland presented a research perspective on the social impact of the floods.

The webinar was attended by more than 160 participants from a wide range of institutes, organisations and communities who engaged on the damage caused by the floods, the contributing factors, response, challenges, plans for future disasters and the opportunities for collaboration.

Stakeholders interested in preventing and managing such events raised concerns that the D’RAP and MILE teams noted for reporting to EM.

The D’RAP is a joint initiative between UKZN and EM that was launched in 2011 to produce actionable research on biodiversity, climate, and people.

Senior Co-ordinator at EM Disaster Management and Emergency Control Mr Malcolm Canham discussed the classification of a disaster, what disaster management is, and the legislative background underpinning his unit’s response to disasters.

He described a disaster as a progressive, sudden, widespread or localised natural or human-made incident that impacts on existing hazards and could cause or threaten to cause death, injury, disease, or damage to property or infrastructure and the environment. This disrupts community life and systems, particularly in vulnerable areas.

Disasters occur when the impact is of such a magnitude that those affected are unable to cope with its effects using their own resources, as was the case in Durban, which resulted in the declaration of a state of disaster.

‘Disaster management is a continuous, integrated, multisectoral, multidisciplinary process of risk identification and risk reduction that sets up measures aimed at preventing or reducing the risks of disasters; preparedness is important,’ said Canham.

The framework guiding the unit’s work focuses on integrated institutional arrangements, risk assessments, risk reduction, and response and recovery.

Canham presented statistics on the number of people affected by the floods, including those missing who have yet to be found as search and rescue efforts are ongoing. He presented images depicting the damage and provided updates on relief measures, water supply and infrastructure repairs, and the financial considerations.

Discussions centred on construction and infrastructure that disrupt floodplains and wetlands, with the adage of disasters causing development and development causing disasters cited, and Canham commenting that more thought needs to be given to development in the South Durban basin in particular.

Sutherland, from UKZN’s School of Built Environment and Development Studies addressed the social dimensions of the April 2022 floods as well as those in April 2019.

She noted that, apart from the extensive loss of life and damage to housing, there was also loss of land, which is a vital resource for people, particularly those in informal settlements.

Through the D’RAP, Sutherland works in the Quarry Road West informal settlement where invasive alien plant and solid waste clearing, reporting of sewer leaks and industrial pollution, the establishment of an Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities (EPIC) programme and a Flood Early Warning System, as well as community training and employment opportunities have contributed to the community’s resilience.

‘This was a major social disruption to the everyday life of citizens, across the city,’ said Sutherland. ‘Despite the high volume of rainfall, it should not have caused this level of damage. Risk is the product of the hazard and the vulnerability of the context in which it occurs, and we need to draw on citizens’ experiential knowledge to inform adaptation.’

Sutherland described the lessons emerging from working with this community through disasters, noting that it is essential to collaborate with civil society, and to co-produce knowledge with various actors and add a social component to systems.

She highlighted the need to build geographic knowledge and literacy and said that if a disaster response is not socially and environmentally transformative, communities’ capabilities and options after these events are reduced.

Sutherland said that trauma counselling after the floods was vital and that disaster management should learn from internal community adaptation practices.

‘We need to cultivate state-citizen relationships, work across silos, build governance platforms, work at the local scale, and share knowledge. Instead of demanding too much resilience from people, we need to work collaboratively to do better,’ she said.

Dr Sean O’Donoghue, Senior Manager of the Climate Change Adaptation Branch at EM, said that the action research led by Sutherland aligns with strategies promoted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including community-based research and committed municipal officials.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Image: Supplied