Floods will happen no matter what is done, but building water-sensitive communities and investing in early-warning systems will lessen the impact of water disasters, says an industry expert.
More than 80 people died in severe localised flooding in KwaZulu-Natal in April this year, with damage estimated at R1bn, said Tjeerd Driessen, director at an engineering consultancy, Royal Haskoning DHV.
“With poorer communities often hardest hit by severe weather events because they are built near rivers, homes are badly built or they have the insufficient infrastructure, it is crucial that South African cities become more climate-resilient.
“Although floods are devastating, they should be seen as opportunities to design more resilient cities that better incorporate and cater for informal settlements and are better equipped to deal with changing weather patterns,” Driessen said.
Last year, flash floods in Gauteng and Limpopo left seven dead and a massive sinkhole on a motorway. Cape Town almost experienced “day zero” when a severe water shortage threatened to force municipalities to turn off supplies and ration water to residents.
“It’s also important for South African cities to become more climate-resilient so they can handle the extremes of having too much or too little water. But there are hurdles in the way, including insufficient investment in the tools and technology required to maintain water infrastructure, and inadequate urban planning to build water-sensitive cities,” Driessen said.
A water-sensitive city is one that integrates all aspects of the water cycle. It adopts a land planning and engineering design approach that integrates the storm water, groundwater, and waste water management and water supply into urban design and closes the water cycle, Driessen said.
He said there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building flood-resilient cities because each setting has its own climatic, environmental and social complexities. However, with the right planning, new technology, public participation, and robust infrastructure, “we never have to be caught off guard by floods again”.