FRANKLY SPEAKING: Time to note dire lessons of flood disasters
May the good Lord comfort the families of those who died in the recent heavy rains in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.
While we know that the heavy rains were causal here, we also know that the loss of life could have been minimised.
According to the Sunday Times, 1,195 RDP houses were damaged in eThekwini.
A number of weaknesses in eThekwini’s disaster management were highlighted in the aftermath of the floods. It is important for South Africa to note these glaring weaknesses because they also affect many other human settlements in South Africa.
Coleen Vogel and Francois Engelbrecht, both professors and experts in disaster management and climate modelling, pointed out the risk associated with building homes in flood plains.
They also pointed out the poor maintenance of stormwater drainage systems as major concerns. Both of these problems are the lived experiences of millions of South Africans.
The poor location and poor quality of RDP houses have also been pointed out by experts as behind the deaths caused when these houses succumb to heavy rains.
Mud structures and shacks, of which we have more than enough, were also highly vulnerable during heavy rainfalls.
In Port St Johns the hardest hit area was one where shack dwellings have been erected. Tragically this is a challenge we are all too aware of. It’s a problem that has increased massively as urbanisation, unemployment, poverty, poor planning, and bad politics all take their toll.
“There is evidence that some of the houses were poorly constructed. There is also the possibility that some contractors did not commission geotechnical studies of the sites before building the RDP houses.”
The Council for the Built Environment CEO, Priscilla Mdlalose, is attributed to these words.
I suspect that Priscilla Mdlalose was trying to be diplomatic here. While contractors are legally obliged to ensure that human settlements are fit for human use and that they do not pose a foreseeable danger to human lives, the government has to share the bulk of the blame.
It is government, both at the local and national level which is mandated with both creating and enforcing the rules regarding human settlements.
The government is also responsible for approval of buildings, ensuring the suitability and feasibility of building plans as well as their approval.
So how does such a comprehensive system of checks and balances fail to notice that poor quality houses are being built on steep slopes in flood-prone areas like eThekwini?
Martin Lewis, CEO of South African Council for Planners, acknowledges that, while RDP houses were usually built according to construction standards and regulations, it was non-adherence to these procedures which was a problem.
To add to this problem is the issue of illegally built structures. This brings us back to the role of government.
It is the role of government to control and disallow the erection of illegal structures, yet we witness illegal structures going up all the time.
While this points to another problem, the problem of mismanaged urbanisation and the influx of work-seekers into towns and cities, it does nothing to reduce the role of government in this matter.
This type of failure ultimately leads to such needless deaths as we witnessed in KwaZulu-Natal and in the Eastern Cape.
“Location and affordability remain key. Poor households are driven to non-ideal slopes due to exorbitant land prices,” said Martin Lewis.
There’s an inherent unfairness in driving the least capable people towards building in areas which require the greatest investment in preparing the ground and constructing very strong foundations before they build. However, this may be a consideration for later, when the fundamentals involved here have been attended to. Both national government and local government should have plans to attend to urbanisation, spatial development, and city development in a manner which bring in efficiency, beauty and sustainability. It is only through such planning and execution that such unfairness can be reasonably attended to.
However, none of this is possible if political parties insist on deploying ill-equipped cadres into local and national government.
The rampant corruption which is encouraged by this system of politically tainted appointments is directly responsible for disasters such as the needless death of over 70 people during this recent flood.
Until South African politics grows enough to recognise that government is not about politics, but about the effective management of the affairs of a nation, we will pay the cost with both our lives and our pockets...