The death toll from South Africa’s “unprecedented” floods climbed to 341 on Thursday as helicopters fanned out across the southeastern city of Durban in an increasingly desperate search for survivors.
With roads and bridges washed away by rainfall this week, rescuers battled to deliver supplies across the city where some residents have been without power or water since Monday.
“The level of devastation of human life, infrastructure, and service delivery network in the province is unprecedented,” said Sihle Zikalala, premier of KwaZulu-Natal.
“A total number of 40,723 people have been affected. Sadly, 341 fatalities have been recorded,” he told a news conference.
At a small airport north of Durban, helicopters carried rescuers in and out. The air support was pulled not only from the military and police, but also a fleet of volunteers, private contractors and schools.
But one day after the rains finally subsided, fewer survivors were being found, said Travis Trower, a director for the volunteer-run organisation Rescue South Africa. From 85 calls on Thursday, he said his teams had found only corpses.
“It’s unfortunate, but we do the best we can for as many people as we can,” he said.
The government has given no indication of how many people are missing. Zikalala predicted the bill for damage will run into billions of rand.
Appeal for shelter
President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the region a state of disaster to unlock relief funds. Authorities said they established 17 shelters to accommodate more than 2,100 displaced people.
Sporadic protests erupted in some areas against the slow restoration of services and a lack of relief. Durban’s city government appealed for patience.
“We understand the frustration and anxiety of our residents,” it said in a statement. “We are working as quickly as we can. Our teams are hard at work to resume services. However, it may take a while to fully restore all services because of the extent of the damage to access roads.”
The government of KwaZulu-Natal province has also put out a public call for aid, urging people to donate non-perishable food, bottled water, clothes and blankets.
But many survivors said they were left to fend for themselves.
In Amaoti, a township north of Durban, residents balanced precariously on the embankment of a collapsed road, trying to fetch clean water from a broken pipe underneath.
“We don’t have water, there is no electricity … People from [everywhere] are coming to get water,” said Thabani Mgoni, 38.
Philisiwe Mfeka, a 78-year-old grandmother, said her water supply stopped on Tuesday.
Even water from the fractured pipe was being rationed to one bucket per person with children, some as young as 10, coming to fetch it.
At a riverside, families washed what clothes they could recover in muddy water amid severed pipes that poked from the earth.
Weather experts say some areas received more than 45cm (18 inches) in 48 hours, amounting to nearly half of Durban’s annual rainfall of 101cm (40 inches).
The South African Weather Service issued an Easter weekend warning of thunderstorms and localised flooding in KwaZulu-Natal and neighbouring Free State and Eastern Cape provinces.
The country is still struggling to recover from the two-year-old COVID pandemic and deadly riots last year that killed more than 350 people.
Africa’s southeastern coast is on the front line of sea-borne weather systems that scientists believe are worsening because of global warming. They expect the situation to get far worse in the decades to come.
Ramaphosa described the disaster as “a catastrophe of enormous proportions,” adding that it was “obviously part of climate change”.
“We no longer can postpone what we need to do, the measures we need to take to deal with climate change. Our disaster management capability needs to be at a higher level,” Ramaphosa told a crowd in Ntuzuma township in Durban, without elaborating.
In 2020, Durban – KwaZulu-Natal’s largest city – released its Climate Action Plan outlining strategies to green its energy, cut flood risk, improve waste management and conserve water, with a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
While climate activists acknowledged the plan was progressive, they said there was limited evidence it was being implemented. But measures ranging from better drainage to more careful urban planning will be crucial to limiting losses during weather extremes such as this week’s floods, climate experts said.
“This is a teachable moment,” said Christopher Trisos, a lead author of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change adaptation and risks released in late February.
“The IPCC report found that 90 percent of African cities do not yet have substantial climate adaptation plans, which is extremely concerning. But there are still opportunities to adapt,” Trisos said.
Trisos said informal settlements offered good opportunities for adaptation to growing flood risk.
“There is an opportunity as lots of informal settlements are not yet covered in tarmac, so we can still create green infrastructure,” from water-absorbing urban parks to better-draining rivers, he said.