The extreme rainfall that triggered deadly flooding on the eastern coast of South Africa in April was made twice as likely and 4 to 8% more intense by climate change, concludes a new study by the World Weather Attribution Service.
The study, which links climate change and the torrential downpour that brought nearly a year’s worth of rain to the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces within the span of two days, also examines how “structural inequalities” that persisted after apartheid have left marginalized communities particularly vulnerable to floods, reports Carbon Brief.
The authors of the study told Carbon Brief they have “quite high confidence” in its results, but they also concluded that the event was “not unprecedented,” stating that additional factors—most critically the legacy of apartheid—made this meteorological event “so impactful and worth studying.”
Alongside their comparative analysis of rainfall data in the afflicted area, study authors also highlighted the Group Areas Act of 1958, legislation enacted by the Durban City Council which assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections. That resulted in “the displacement of many non-white communities into less desirable and, in some cases, more flood exposed areas.”
Study co-author Dr. Christopher Jack, deputy director of the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town and science advisor to the Red Cross Climate Centre, told media the flooding and landslides that killed more than 400 people in the April floods and left 40,000 homeless were part of a “chronic problem” in South Africa, one that owes significantly to the “legacy of apartheid.”
But present-day policies (or the lack thereof) are also contributing to the profound vulnerability of millions of poorer South Africans.
While the South African Weather Service did issue a warning ahead of the downpours, the news story states, “the warnings had limited reach and the people who did receive them may not have known what to do based on them.”
Then there is the devastating intersection between South Africa’s 35% unemployment rate and the odds that a family will live in treacherously makeshift housing. As the New York Times observed at the time, people “end up building tin shacks wherever they can find land”. All too often, that means on riverbanks or on steep and increasingly water-logged slopes, both particularly dangerous places to live and raise families as the climate crisis accelerates. Citing Statistics South Africa, the Times reported that almost 12% of South Africans live in some equivalent of a tin shack on dangerously unstable ground.