Flood Underscores Climate Action Urgency in South Africa

The world’s current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions pathway indicates that heavy precipitation events like this will occur more often in Durban

Flooding in South Africa’s Durban metro area (eThekwini municipality) in mid-April claimed 435 lives, left more than 40,000 people displaced, disrupted food and fuel supplies, and unleashed infrastructure damage at the Port of Durban, one of the continent’s largest and busiest ports. Water infrastructure, roads, power and cellphone networks, and civil infrastructure, including schools, healthcare facilities, police stations, and courthouses, were also extensively damaged. 

“We need to increase our investment in climate adaptation measures to better safeguard communities against the effects of climate change,” South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said when declaring a national state of disaster on April 18. 

The Port of Durban’s significance means that April’s flash flood and mudslides could inflict economic and social damage beyond Durban and the KwaZulu-Natal province. And the world’s current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions pathway indicates that heavy precipitation events like this will occur more often in the Durban metro area. 

The Port of Durban, for example, faces a notably higher risk of extreme rainfall events by 2050, under the world’s current emissions pathway, according to the Gro Climate Indicator for Heavy Precipitation (GCI-HP). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest working group report, released last month, said that the world is on track for 3.2 degree Celsius of warming by 2100, putting the current IPCC trajectory estimate between SSP 2-4.5 and SSP 3-70.

The IPCC’s trajectory estimate for global warming falls between SSP 2-4.5 and SSP 3-70. The orange line, SSP 5-8.5, is the IPCC’s highest emissions scenario.

The GCI-HP provides users with the expected change in frequency of heavy precipitation events occurring in any country, province/state, and district (county) globally. 

According to President Ramaphosa, after immediate flood-related humanitarian aid is administered and basic services are restored, South Africa will focus on reconstruction and rebuilding. This will involve construction and repair of major infrastructure as well as the construction of new housing in suitably-located areas and measures to protect the residents of these areas from similar future adverse weather events, he said. 

For decision makers, the repair and rebuild phase will present tough choices. They will have to balance climate resiliency with limited resources. Resettlement plans and infrastructure repair and rebuild initiatives, which are typically intergenerational, will need to take into account the new weather conditions that climate change will bring. 

Because climate action and sustainable development are interdependent, South Africa, a country long gripped by a significant housing shortage due to the legacy of apartheid, will also want to ensure that social objectives and social equity are considered when deciding how infrastructure project money is spent and resources are allocated. 

Despite this April’s tragedy, Durban, South Africa’s third largest city, has a head start as it tries to address its climate-related challenges. 

In 2019, Durban - an early pioneer of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) in a city context - became the first African city to produce a Paris Agreement-aligned Climate Action Plan. Also, in its February 28th report on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerabilities, the IPCC used Durban as a case study, noting that the lessons learned from Durban’s experience with EbA include the importance of meaningful partnerships, long-term financial commitments, and significant political and administrative will. 

To prevent the worst climate impacts, global GHG emissions need to reach net zero around 2050. The 2015 Paris Agreement requires all treaty signatories to limit global warming emissions consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5-2°C by the end of this century. Treaty signatories also pledged to provide financing to developing countries to help them mitigate climate change, strengthen resilience, and enhance their ability to adapt to climate impacts.