Devasting floods hit the eastern region of South Africa after days of heavy rainfall in April. Scientists have linked the record-breaking downpour to climate change and warn of increasingly extreme weather events to come. These are putting strain on the ability of countries to prevent and respond to disasters. In South Africa, the scale of the crisis left the government struggling to mount an adequate response, while civil society played a vital role in leading recovery efforts on the ground. The disaster should spur the government to urge stronger global action on climate change.

In April, the coastal city of Durban and South Africa’s wider KwaZulu-Natal province experienced some of the worst flooding the country has experienced in decades. This came after days of heavy rainfall with some areas recording as much as 35 centimetres of rain in two days. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed, triggering a civil society response. Renewed floods in May have highlighted the ongoing vulnerability of the region.

Floods point to climate change impacts

Scientists have linked these events, the latest in a series of extreme weather events around the world, to climate change. Flooding and natural disasters are not new to South Africa but the scale of recent events is almost unprecedented. According to analysis by the World Weather Attribution group, global warming has doubled the likelihood of events of the kind seen in South Africa and increased the intensity of rainfall.

People who have done little to contribute to climate change are suffering its worst impacts.

In KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s second most populous province with a population of 11 million people, the impacts have been devasting. Over 440 people were killed and 63 remain unaccounted for. The rain triggered floods and mudslides that affected electricity and water services and disrupted operations in Durban’s ports. Infrastructure damage was estimated to have cost more than 10 billion rand (approx. US$685 million).

According to government reports, over 6,000 people were left homeless as a result of the disaster, with many evacuated to emergency shelters in churches, public halls and governmental buildings. This presented further problems as crowded spaces, lack of sanitation and poor hygiene exposed survivors to new risks.

The impacts are still being felt a month later. Economic activity in the region has been affected by inconsistent electricity supply and infrastructure damage is expected to take months to repair. Beyond damage to property, many have left been left traumatised and grieving and are in desperate need of mental health support.

As is always the case, the most vulnerable in society are the worst affected. The legacy of apartheid means that many South Africans live in informal shacks built from unstable materials, and these have proved unable to withstand the onslaught of the recent storms. People who have done little to contribute to climate change are suffering its worst impacts.

Civil society’s response crucial

Civil society groups and community organisers have played a significant role in disaster response. Volunteers helped in the clean-up efforts by removing debris from rivers and streets while local groups organised the collection and distribution of community donations of essential items such as mattresses, tinned food, blankets and hygiene parcels. In the shelters where displaced people gathered, volunteers cooked food while others organised homework clubs to keep children from falling behind on their school work.

Religious organisations have also played an important role in recovery efforts with groups like Caritas South Africa and the Salvation Army working to provide relief on the ground. Larger networks such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have similarly been active. MSF has provided medical services including mental health counselling for those immediately affected; it has trained 200 community healthcare workers in mental health awareness so they are able to recognise symptoms and refer people with mental health problems to qualified counsellors. IFRC has provided food, blankets and other essentials to over 2,000 people in evacuation centres, along with first aid and psychosocial support. It also launched an emergency appeal with the aim of raising at least CHF 8 million (approx. US$8.2 million) to scale up activities.

Government response poses disaster preparedness questions

Municipalities in South Africa are typically responsible for much of their own disaster preparedness and response but given the scale of this disaster, recovery efforts have been supported by the national government. Clean up work has been taking place jointly between the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs and municipalities in affected districts. Combined efforts have helped in the relocation of thousands of people to temporary shelters, while more long-term residential units are currently being built.

The scale of what’s needed however remains vast. Thus far, the government has provided one billion rand (approx. US$62 million) for relief work, but KwaZulu-Natal’s premier, Sihle Zikalala, has suggested nine times that figure will be needed.

In the immediate response to the flooding, the government declared a national state of disaster to enable provincial access to emergency funding and activated International Charter 755, allowing the government to access free satellite data for disaster monitoring purposes. Rescue teams were deployed to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need but in many cases were unable to reach people in the most isolated and worst-affected areas. Rescue efforts by the South African National Defence Force were also delayed.

The difficulties in responding pointed to a lack of adequate emergency management capacities, covering aspects such as prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery, at both the provincial and national level.

Need for climate action

Beyond disaster management capacities, the recent floods should focus renewed attention on climate policy. In 2021 at the COP26 climate change summit, the South African government set new targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions and pledged to achieve net zero status by 2050.

At the sub-national level there are commitments too. Five South African cities – Durban, plus Cape Town, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane – are part of the C40 cities initiative, which connects the world’s largest cities to develop and implement a climate action plan compatible with the Paris Agreement.

These are steps in the right direction, but commitments need to go further. South Africa remains one of the world’s leading producers of coal, one of the worst of the fossil fuels driving climate change.

The problem of course goes beyond South Africa’s borders. Climate change is a global emergency that needs a global response. South Africa, one of Africa’s major powers, should become a climate leader and push for significant progress when the next global summit, COP27, takes place on the African continent, in Egypt this November.

South Africa’s civil society, as it tries to deal with the kinds of impacts of climate change seen in KwaZulu-Natal, will also keep urging its government to demand global-level action sufficient to meet the scale of the crisis.


  • The national and provincial governments should develop more efficient early warning tools to better predict when and where flooding will take place.
  • A review of the response to the recent events should be conducted so that government can learn from failings and develop better strategies to respond more effectively to future disasters.
  • The South African government should become a climate champion within Africa to push for stronger global climate action.

Cover photo by REUTERS/Rogan Ward via Gallo Images