It will be a while before food producers in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal bounce back from the catastrophic floods that ripped through their farms in April. As farmers count their losses, a fresh study points to climate change as a key contributor to the devastation, but not all experts agree. Some say climate change has become a convenient scapegoat for other issues.
One of the farmers still recovering from major losses is Ayabonga Nkabani, who raises day-old chicks in the Eastern Cape and had 50 chicks before the floods. “I lost 30 of them, and the feed. And I had just bought 20 chickens. Since the flood, I don’t have stock.”
As a widow trying to start again, she says it has been a struggle. “All of my stock was gone. I lost everything and I need support to get up on my feet again.”
Nkabani is not alone, says Sinelizwe Fakade, a commercial farmer and chairperson of Ukhanyo Farmer Development. The impact of the floods had been particularly devastating to smallholder farmers in low-lying areas of the Eastern Cape, he explains.
“The impact has been immense. [These are] developing farmers and smallholders who are already fighting existing issues. Some have lost chicken stock and chicken houses have been flooded. There has been severe infrastructure damage.”
Farmer incomes have been severely impacted and fixing damages will be hugely expensive, Fakade says. “Farmers will take time to bounce back from this.”
The ‘yes’ answer and the ‘no’ answer
Meanwhile, a study released by World Weather Attribution (WWA) revealed that the floods were due to climate change-exacerbated rainfalls. Their findings suggest that greenhouse gasses and aerosol emissions are partly responsible for the observed increases.
“We conclude that the probability of an event such as the rainfall that resulted in this disaster has approximately doubled due to human-induced climate change. The intensity of the current event has increased by 4 to 8%,” the report reads.
The WWA projects that heavy rainfall events will increase in frequency and magnitude in the future.
However, opinions on the direct links to climate change are divided.
According to Prof. Roland Schulze, a senior researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, there is no conclusive study linking these flooding events to climate change. For him, the link is both “yes and no”.
“The ‘no’ answer is that these things have happened before and we have had far worse damage. There are two major reasons why there has been so much damage this time. Before we had the big rains, the soil was already wet. When soil is already wet, you have more run-off and flood damage.”
Mixture of social and climate issues
Schulze’s second reason is human behaviour. Waste and urban movement are preventing flood-preventative infrastructure working as optimally as it should.
“The infrastructure is full of rubbish, and storm water drains are often blocked. The maintenance of the infrastructure is not what it should be,” he explains.
In addition, informal settlements are often built in areas where flooding is inevitable. “There has been such an influx of people from rural areas to urban areas, seeking work. People are genuinely poor, so where can they go and live? In shacks, on flood plains.
“The issue is a mixture of social and climate issues. People are living where they shouldn’t be living, and our engineering systems can’t cope because we aren’t looking after it.”
Schulze adds that it’s difficult for scientists to make the climate change connection conclusively due to insufficient data. “Climate change is a long-term thing. We can’t say for sure if this event is linked to it… We need longer data sets.”
The professor believes climate change is an easy distractor to hide other issues. “It has become a buzzword and often the scapegoat behind which many observations and social or governmental inefficiencies can be conveniently hidden.”
Schulze cautions that, to prevent a repeat of the damage, better planning is required around land zoning, town planning and flood legislation, among others.
Into the longer term, he adds, South Africa should reduce greenhouse gas emissions and close the gap between climate change policy and implementation.
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