Flooding kills hundreds in South Africa: 'This disaster is part of climate change'

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More than 300 people have been killed in flooding following days of extreme rainfall in eastern South Africa, with some areas receiving up to six months’ worth of rain in a single day.

Touring the devastated region on Wednesday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the severity of the downpours was further evidence of the consequences of climate change.

“This disaster is part of climate change. It is telling us that climate change is serious, it is here,” said Ramaphosa, adding, “We no longer can postpone what we need to do, and the measures we need to take to deal with climate change.”

KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa saw the heaviest single-day rains in more than 60 years, the country's national weather service reported.

“We’re traumatized, we can’t even eat. For the whole day I didn’t eat because I don’t know what to do,” Boniswa Shangase, a resident of Durban whose home was washed away in the flooding, told the BBC.

As the waters quickly rose around the hillside home where she raised her two daughters, Shangase jumped out a window before it gave way.

“Now I’m homeless,” she told the BBC. “We can’t live here anymore.”

A destroyed bridge in Durban, South Africa
A destroyed bridge in Durban, South Africa. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

Numerous scientific studies have found that rising global temperatures are increasing the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, and that as a result, certain regions are now at greater risk of flash flooding due to extreme precipitation events.

“Extreme precipitation is expected to intensify with global warming over large parts of the globe as the concentration of atmospheric water vapor which supplies the water for precipitation increases in proportion to the saturation concentrations at a rate of about 6-7% per degree rise in temperature according to the thermodynamic Clausius-Clapeyron relationship,” stated a 2020 study by Hossein Tabari, who researches how climate change affects the hydrologic cycle.

The study added, however, that where the intensification will be experienced globally depends on a variety of factors.

While the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the western portion of South Africa can expect to see drought in the coming years, eastern parts of the country face the possibility of an increased number of extreme rainfall events.

“Future warming is likely to be greatest over the interior of semi-arid margins of the Sahara and central southern Africa,” stated a study by researchers at the University of Oslo. “Projected changes in precipitation will lead to a drying throughout southern Africa and increases in rainfall over parts of eastern Africa."

Destruction from floodwaters.
Destruction from floodwaters north of Durban. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

A massive continent, Africa will see an array of climate change impacts, the IPCC said in its latest report, such as the crippling drought that has endangered the lives of 350,000 children in Somalia and displaced more than 700,000 people over the last three years. By 2030, the IPCC warned in its report, “half the continent of Africa could be displaced as a result of climate change.”

In KwaZulu-Natal province, where power lines snapped from the force of rushing water, bridges were destroyed and thousands were left homeless, this week’s storms provided yet another preview of the climate change future.

“The heavy rainfall that has descended on our land over the past few days has wreaked untold havoc and unleashed massive damage to lives and infrastructure,” the province said in a message posted to its Facebook page.