South Africa: Durban flood disaster unveils state climate sloth

April 26, 2022
2022 Durban floods
Aftermath of the floods in Durban, South Africa. Photo: Twitter

Floods again ravaged South Africa’s third-largest city, Durban, on April 11, killing at least 300 residents and forcing thousands more to evacuate their homes. Collapsed roads and bridges have prevented the movement of people and emergency goods, and in vast areas of the city, broken water reticulation pipes and the collapsed electricity system have left many residents without power and water for days.

The death toll exceeds Durban’s prior record of 64 deaths from the Rain Bomb of April 2019, when 168 millimeters fell in 24 hours, causing at least $75 million in damage. In October 2017, 108 mm fell in one day, killing 11.

Despite hosting the annual United Nations COP17 climate summit in 2011 — albeit considered a global policy failure — Durban city officials continue to appear numb to the imminent threats of climate disaster. For example, not bothering to make basic infrastructure repairs after the 2017 floods, even in high-profile sites like the violence-afflicted Glebelands migrant labour hostel whose roof was still not repaired two years later.

This time, the skies dumped 351mm. Once again, it was obvious that the Durban municipality (officially known as eThekwini), KwaZulu-Natal province and the national state government all lack a genuine commitment to climate-crisis adaptation, including sufficiently robust civil engineering and simple maintenance of already-inadequate storm water drainage systems. State housing provision and construction standards for thousands of the city’s residential structures were revealed as inadequate. Hardest hit were Durban’s poor communities: of the city’s 550 informal shack settlements, at least 164 are located in floodplains.

Greenwashed Durban

Durban municipality is often accused of slacking on climate protection, in spite of its rhetoric to the contrary. For example in 2020, it claimed “to be at the cutting edge of climate change action” due to its “progressive leadership and engagement” within the C40 Leadership Group — a network presided over by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. There is also far too much praise of Durban’s supposed climate action by out-of-touch scholars, although some journalists have been able to separate fact from C40 fiction.

Durban’s notorious green-washing even entailed a 2014 World Wildlife Fund award nomination, for which city bureaucrats hired a professional internet trickster who hijacked twitter accounts, partly to promote a failed World Bank carbon-trading scheme.

And in 2018, notwithstanding media reports of then-Mayor Zandile Gumede’s impending prosecution on multiple corruption and solid-waste procurement-scam charges, the San Francisco Global Climate Action Summit’s “One Planet City Challenge” recognised Durban as “a leader in climate action” because it “continues to combine ambitious targets and focused action with community development initiatives”. Gumede was from 2016 until her mid-2019 arrest and forced resignation, the C40 urban climate network’s Vice Chair, again revealing the shallow incompetence of global climate elites.

The Durban Climate Action Plan 2019 lacks urgency, although at least it is premised on what climate scientists were predicting a decade before: dry areas will be more prone to drought, and wet coastal and eastern areas of South Africa much rainier, with greater intensity of extreme weather events.

Talk generous and green, walk stingy and dirty

Immediately after the 2019 Rain Bomb, President Cyril Ramaphosa visited Durban alongside Gumede to survey the damage. Ramaphosa conceded that “the force of nature is so huge and this is partly what climate change is about: that it just hits when we least expect it”.

As for emergency relief and what is termed by the United Nations as “loss and damage” costs, Ramaphosa promised support:  “Money will be mobilised to assist our people. These are [the] emergency situations that we budget for, so resources will be mobilised in the biggest way so that our people who are currently in need are assisted.”

Yet only $6.25 million was provided by the Treasury to meet emergency housing needs. This would cover just 14% of the city’s own estimate of the April storm’s $46 million in residential damage, itself considered low given the scale of the destruction and need for proper reconstruction.

Ramaphosa returned to Durban on April 13 to visit flood victims and pledged climate action. “This disaster is part of climate change," he said. “We no longer can postpone what we need to do, and the measures we need to take to deal with climate change.”

However, Ramaphosa’s hypocrisy was glaring, for prior to 2016, when he sold his private conglomerate Shanduka, Ramaphosa was so desperate to dig for coal that he failed to obtain required water licenses (apparently due to regulatory corruption), displaced local residents and also teamed up with the notorious Swiss-based corporation Glencore at a time the latter was facing international lawsuits on dozens of ethics grounds. The point was not lost on locals who remember its founder Marc Rich’s role in Apartheid-era sanctions-busting.

A year ago, even some former Ramaphosa labour-based allies rounded on him, given plausible concerns he favoured Glencore’s coal division at consumers’ expense during a 2014‒15 electricity pricing battle when Ramaphosa was deputy president.

Until South Africa was threatened with trade-related climate sanctions last year, Ramaphosa proved resistant to activist demands that the state curtail its love affair with fossil fuels, electricity-intensive deep mining, refining and smelting.

For example, in order to fight a Mozambican insurgency in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province last July, Ramaphosa deployed more than 1000 army troops and much-needed helicopters (leaving only one in Durban for emergency rescues). They were mainly defending the interests of Western and Chinese oil companies drilling at the world’s fourth-largest methane field. The insurgents continue to operate from the shadows, although French oil company Total has announced a resumption of gas drilling and processing.

Ramaphosa’s public enterprise minister in 2020 — who a decade earlier as finance minister had arranged for the World Bank’s largest-ever loan, to pay for the world’s largest coal-fired plants then under construction — hired a former executive of mining company Sasol known as “Mr Coal” to run Eskom, the electricity parastatal.

Then, in mid-2021, Ramaphosa announced 44% of his “Just Energy Transition” funds – including $8.5 billion in supposed decarbonisation finance from last November’s Glasgow COP26 — would be used to convert coal-fired power plants into methane gas plants (and new ones would be built). It is now widely understood that methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide, and indeed is now measured as eighty times worse over the course of a century.

The government’s contributions to the climate crisis are prolific. The first presidential infrastructure priority mega-project is to export 18 billion tons of coal from a site in his parents’ home province, Limpopo. If the associated rail and power infrastructure is ever completed it will cost at least $100 billion. Ramaphosa’s Transnet [South African rail transport company] team is hell-bent on privatising rail lines to increase coal exports.

Also in Limpopo, Ramaphosa promotes the $17 billion Chinese-driven Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ), located next to his traditional home village. MMSEZ was proudly announced in 2018 after Xi Jinping and Ramaphosa co-chaired the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. According to a government statement the MMSEZ prioritised for implementation “a 4600MW coal-fired plant, a cement plant and other metallurgical projects”.

Even without the originally-planned coal generator, which climate activists appear to have defeated last month, “other metallurgical projects” will emit 34 megatons of CO2 annually, according to officials. Hence by 2030, if the project proceeds, they will comprise 8% of the 420 megaton national pollution target.

Meanwhile without presidential objection, Ramaphosa’s energy minister recklessly pushes methane gas and coal, his environment minister rejects court orders to cut pollution by the two largest greenhouse gas emitters (Eskom and Sasol), and his finance minister delays (by more years) ratcheting up what is an absurdly low carbon tax, one currently just $0.42/ton due to exemptions, compared to most recent estimates of a $3000/ton cost of carbon.

The cost of not transitioning justly

The latter point is vital, because by applying a rudimentary “polluter pays” principle as a means of raising funds — but in a progressive not regressive way (as did French and Ecuadorean governments in 2018‒19, generating massive social protests) — funds could be raised for not only “loss and damage” reparations, but also for necessary climate-proofing investments in poor communities.

Thanks to dramatically-increased unemployment in these areas due to COVID-19, there are pent-up supplies of construction labourers and general workers who can repair and strengthen drainage systems, rebuild damaged roads, construct sturdier houses and safer bridges, restore wetlands and rehabilitate riverine systems to act as a sponge. Solar and wind energy plus public transit improvements also need generous subsidies. By one account, a “million climate jobs” could be provided if there was the political will.

Ramaphosa’s government broke many promises to “build back better” after the COVID-19 economic lockdown. In October 2020, Ramaphosa committed the state to hiring 800,000 new workers, but Treasury’s unprecedented budget cuts kicked in soon thereafter. That dried up the funding needed not only to repair damaged infrastructure, but also to implement a genuine “just transition” to support workers dislocated by decarbonisation, whether in the coal fields or at South Durban’s refinery complex (where the Engen and Sapref oil refineries recently reached the end of their lifespans).

Had more state funds been available for Durban’s 2019 recovery, the necessary climate adaptation work could have taken place. Yet as local journalist Des Erasmus remarked recently, an underlying case of maladministration cannot be disguised “notwithstanding climate change, poor infrastructure, drainage and sewer maintenance, poorly-built RDP (government subsidised houses) and allowing residents to build homes on river banks had also significantly contributed to the fallout”.

What sort of climate-resilient investments are needed? A first step is improving early-warning systems and flood preparedness, since the South African Weather Service admitted that it vastly underestimated the storm’s power.

Labour-intensive construction is needed for small dams and seawalls; stronger roads and bridge reinforcements; better-quality pipes and water treatment; back-up generators for pumping stations; firebreaks; and much more effective stormwater drainage, including maintenance.

Most obviously, improvements in housing stability are required across the working-class areas of Durban, as well as for all structures built on vulnerable hills and near oceans and rivers. And much more investment is needed in green infrastructure, including better maintenance of forests, floodplains and wetlands.

Elusive red-green politics

To get there we need deep and urgent change. How that might happen is unclear, given that although Ramaphosa is losing power internally within his badly-divided African National Congress (ANC) party — which scored only 42% in the 2021 election (25% lower than it did 20 years ago) and lost most major cities to centre-right opposition parties — a new danger has arisen: far-right, xenophobic organising in working-class communities targeting African and Asian immigrants, in lockstep with the rise of the far right globally.

At the same time, there are major splits in the progressive community: two different climate justice coalitions, a terrible cleavage in the left labour movement, ongoing disconnections between community activists fighting similar battles but without organisational coherence, and other woes the independent left faces everywhere.

Desperation to change that power balance has led some brave Climate Justice Charter Movement  activists to call for international sanctions against Ramaphosa’s government, reflecting their sense that this kind of punishment is what motivates elites, as demonstrated in 1985 when anti-Apartheid sanctions bit hard. Responding directly to the Durban Rain Bomb, that movement and Durban-based activist group Oceans Not Oil opened a case of culpable homicide against top government officials, including Ramaphosa.

The European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) climate tariffs may also force climate action by breaking the bloc of high-carbon emitters away from the rest of the economy.

Another cause for optimism is the work of ordinary Durban residents, who are striving to provide mutual aid, through emergency relief group like Gift of the Givers, and are engaging in energetic critique of local, provincial and national governments.

Over the past half-century, the city’s activists have been at the epicenter of struggles like the 1973 port worker organising that helped seed a national labour movement; the mid-1980s community-based anti-Apartheid resistance; the “We are the Poors” movement of the late 1990s that reignited urban social struggles; in the 2005 Abahlali base Mjondolo (Shack Dwellers Movement) which is now raising funds to support flood victims; and in environmental justice groups like groundWork and South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.

These grassroots groups may help the broader society determine, once again, how to fight oppression with an organisational response: one that transcends handwringing, meagre reforms and charity. The one certainty is that the latest Durban Rain Bomb heralds far more profound climate injustices to come.

[Patrick Bond and Mary Galvin teach at University of Johannesburg, in sociology and development studies, respectively. Abridged from the Global Ecosocialist Network.]

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