Building back on higher ground

Roads damaged by floods in KwaZulu-Natal. REUTERS

The storms preceding the recent KwaZulu-Natal floods were part of a normal weather system; known as a cut-off low and is often responsible for excess rain and cold. But the intensity of the deluge was due to climate change, say, experts — warmer seas charged the atmosphere and dumped the added moisture as heavy rainfall. As climate change brings increasingly more unpredictable, frequent, severe and extreme weather events, so the local RSA municipal authorities should prepare with the appropriate risk-management mechanisms.

By Phillip Pettersen, non-executive director at African Risk Capacity (ARC) Limited

From an analytical framework perspective, we should review the introduction in context.

Recent disasters such as the Western Cape drought, the 2017 Knysna fires and floods in KwaZulu-Natal 2018 and Gauteng in 2019 illustrate just how susceptible our cities and towns are to these dangers. 2021 & 2022 all nine provinces have experienced floods on top of a series of devastating fires in the Western Cape, and now the recent Kwa Zulu floods in 2022 with “Four hundred and forty-three dead, 63 missing, more than 13 000 households affected”. This was a headline that appeared on 17 April 2022, leading into an article describing the devastation of the recent KZN floods. In fact, the loss of life, destruction of homes, damage to infrastructure, demolition of public buildings and interruption of services combined to create the worst natural disaster in the province’s history (Latest estimate R17 billion)

These incidents are not isolated or new. The International Disaster Database recorded 90 noticeable weather-related disasters in South Africa since the early 1980s (see graph). These events caused R95 billion in associated economic losses and directly affected around 22 million South Africans.

Weather-related disasters 1980–2020

While it’s clear that these hazards are a frequent occurrence, it is worth noting that there has been a 57% increase in recorded events over the past two decades compared to the preceding two. Climate scientists also warn that this growing trend of economic and social costs will likely continue into the next couple of decades.

Three prominent factors in the risk equation will increase disaster losses in South African cities and towns. The first is the direct impact that climate change will have on weather-related hazards. While global efforts and investments in cleaner technologies are picking up speed, they still fall short of what is needed to achieve the 1.5 ̊C temperature threshold set by the Paris Agreement. This places the world on an intermediary mitigation trajectory.

For South Africa, this trajectory will translate to temperature increases across the country by as much as 3 ̊C in the northern provinces of North West and Northern Cape. Heatwaves and extreme temperature days will increase for all non-coastal settlements. Storms are likely to become more severe in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Free Sate. A third contributing factor is that communities are more exposed to weather disasters than before.

The building inventory created by GEOTERRAIMAGE lists 4.8 million informal dwellings across South Africa in 2021. This is a staggering growth of 146% over the past two decades, compared to a population increase of only 32%. Many of these dwellings are severely exposed to heatwaves, floods and wildfires and are located on marginalised and risk-prone land.

The CSIR’s Green Book made publicly available in 2019 has quantified these risks. The analyses highlight those four of the eight metros in South Africa — Cape Town, Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela — will experience extreme increases in disaster losses. Nine of the 10 most at-risk cities and towns in 2050 will be located in the Limpopo province.

There is no doubt that the context indicates that South Africa needs to ramp up its Disaster Risk Management which I have simplistically shown in a diagram below

Given that SA was one of the key proponents of the ARC movement set up by the 55 members of the African Union (AU) as a specialised agency in 2012, it is unfortunate that the country didn’t follow up and sign the concomitant treaty as have 35 of the 55 countries to help AU Member States improve their capacities to better plan, prepare and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters.

The objective of the ARC is to assist AU Member States to reduce the risk of loss and damage caused by extreme weather events and natural disasters affecting Africa’s populations by providing targeted responses to disasters in a more timely, cost-effective, objective and transparent manner. Had the government been part of this programme and participated in some shape or form, it would have been able to benefit from the coverage — paid for by international investors and donors.

It worries me that even whilst our President was the head of the AU, SA which housed the ARC specialised agency in JHB, did not join. Not being part of the inner circle, it would seem that the advice is being dispensed to the South African authorities, is clearly by inappropriately qualified people that does not take into account the old and vulnerable members of our population.

We have a government that’s dealing with post-pandemic problems, we have probably the highest unemployment rate in the world — heading towards 50% — and we have an inflation rate that’s rising rapidly. Further, our tourism sector is not returning to capacity in the way it was expected to do; and any money in the KZN municipality coffers was paid out following the July riots.

Perhaps it is time for the Government to re-engage with ARC to source cost effective, beneficial solutions that may even be entirely funded by the donor community and new opportunities parametric bonds that are available in Hong Kong!

One possibility is to issue a parametric CAT bond via Hong Kong where it is possible for the entire costs to be born as part of getting this market off the ground. This would include everything from which services to prioritise and how a natural disaster should be managed, to what they should improve on, what the attachment point would be, the insurance point, and the exhaustion point, i.e., where the government would need to come back in at the top again — could all be stipulated.

Essentially, it has become critical for African nations to improve their ability to plan, prepare for and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters, which will allow governments to protect at-risk populations. This type of insurance is no longer a nice-to-have and, as a specialised insurance agency of the AU, the work of ARC must be highlighted continent-wide.

If we do not invest in climate action and disaster-risk reduction, explains a report on Prevention Web, “the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of storms, droughts and floods could climb to 200 million annually by 2030, and climate-related humanitarian costs could surge as high as US$20 billion per year by 2030.”






Specialized agency of the African Union providing comprehensive sovereign disaster risk solutions to build capacity, climate resilience & food security.

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African Risk Capacity Group

African Risk Capacity Group

Specialized agency of the African Union providing comprehensive sovereign disaster risk solutions to build capacity, climate resilience & food security.

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