KZN Flooding: Could we have prevented so much damage?

KZN Flooding: Could we have prevented so much damage?

The recent flooding saw KZN hit hard. Both property and lives were lost. Terence Pillay asks if we could have done more to improve our infrastructure and prevent such damage?

KZN floods
People begin to remove debris after their homes were destroyed by torrential rains and flash floods at an informal settlement of BottleBrush, south of Durban, on April 23, 2019. Photo: RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP

People always come together when it counts. There’s no shortage of community spirit in a time of crisis in this country. People will always get together and make things happen. And it was more than clear during the recent storms and flooding.

But I think what people are sick of is that this kind of devastating damage was allowed to happen again. When we had the floods in 2017 the same areas were affected and the municipality had allocated large sums of money to do preventative maintenance on the drainage systems, to make sure the same kind of devastation doesn’t happen again.

Now we get some press statement from the municipality with a long story about them having to issue a tender, and it taking eighteen months to sign the contracts and workers had only just started on the project. But the rain came again and people have lost their lives and homes again. Surely this plan by the municipality in 2017 should have been more urgent - I mean it was an emergency after all. All they needed to do was maintain the drainage system.

According to widespread news reports, money approved for repairs was not spent. Following the2017 storm - which destroyed homes, schools, businesses, and vehicles - the executive committee had immediately approved a report which stated that the estimated cost to repair infrastructure damage was more than R576-million.

A Daily News article gave a breakdown of costs at the time and indicated that engineering-related repairs would cost R308-million, Human Settlements required R250-million, Disaster Management, and Emergency Control R4.1-million, Parks and Recreation R7.7-million, Cleansing and Solid Waste R1.3-million, Electricity R2.6-million and Water and Sanitation R2.3-million.

So where are things going wrong? It all starts with checks and balances. Obviously, people in the suburbs find it annoying because they have to get plans for everything. But they are there for a reason; they’re there to protect us to make sure we don’t die when our houses fall down.

Some houses in Queensburgh had collapsed and now I hear that the man renting out those properties is facing charges of culpable homicide after the occupants lost their lives in the disaster. I accept this – but when he built his retaining walls why didn’t the council makes sure that it was built according to engineering specifications?

Entire informal settlements are built and have been washed away in the floods because of no enforcing of bylaws by the city.  Obviously we need to prepare for extreme weather but generally, the idea is that things are built according to a particular code and specifications so that they are safe. For some people, this doesn’t seem to matter.

Why have retaining walls which are supposed to be built to withstand this inclement weather fallen down? Were there proper checks and balances in place by the municipality to make sure the foundation was secure and there was proper drainage? And who inspected it? Did the council come and sign off and say, “There were plans for this; there was an engineer’s certificate to say that the wall was built to engineering specifications and it will be safe.” 

Council needs to take some responsibility because they are ultimately the custodian of the laws around building regulations and the custodians of the drainage system.

The municipality made a number of grandstanding statements about disaster relief and disaster management in that they created a fund that people could contribute towards and there was a huge backlash to it. They posted this call on their Facebook page. Of course everybody wanted to help and was already doing so. We didn’t have to see that with money – we’ve seen people go out and help each other on the street, picking up mud and scraping sidewalks, gathering things, providing blankets and food and all the rest of it.

And of course, there were organizations like Gift of the Givers and we here at East Coast Radio also pitched in and did a drive to collect much-needed supplies for people who were affected by this disaster. Churches and mosques opened their doors to people to give them shelter and there have been loads of people on the ground working tirelessly across racial and cultural divides to provide care to those in need.

And then the municipality puts out a notice saying they want money towards disaster and flood relief and the reaction was not good.  People lambasted them on their Facebook page saying they will waste the money or divert it to some or other selfish gain. People were saying that we should be helping on the ground more tangibly. If your neighbour has been affected then rather give aid directly to that person. It was very clear that nobody trusted the municipality to do the right thing and that’s a huge cause for concern.

So how does a municipality get to this level where they have little or no credibility with its people? And people don’t believe we will be prepared for another flood either. I mean, we’ve had two years to prepare for this one; we knew what would happen in the event of a flood like this and we moved like snails. We’ve also seen the effects of climate change. And look at the beaches and rivers afterwards – filled with plastic – we aren’t even educating people in these areas. If you throw your trash into the drainage systems it blocks the drains and then the roads collapse because the water has nowhere to go, which means houses fall down, so it’s much more than just collecting money.

I’ve driven past drains that have grass growing out of them and the water has nowhere to go. Instead of going into the drains it goes down the road and undermines that road. It really is as basic as that. We all just need to wake up, and it should start right here with this municipality.

At the end of the day we need to hold our city responsible, but we also need to be responsible citizens ourselves. When you have a verge that’s growing into the drain, clear it. Don’t throw garbage into the drains; it’s not what they’re there for. If you see something that looks like it could be a potential maintenance issue, call the relevant department, or even your ward councillor, and let them know. Keep nagging them; it’s a pain in the neck, but somebody has to do it. 

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts.

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