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A man walks around a damaged bridge caused by flooding in Umlazi near Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, April 16 2022. Picture: ROGAN WARD/REUTERS
A man walks around a damaged bridge caused by flooding in Umlazi near Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, April 16 2022. Picture: ROGAN WARD/REUTERS

The government on Monday declared a state of national disaster as it battles to implement recovery and reconstruction plans in the wake of the devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal that have claimed more than 400 lives and destroyed homes, schools and critical infrastructure.

In a televised address to the nation on Monday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the declaration was meant to boost existing measures undertaken by organs of state to deal with the national disaster and allow for the mobilisation of resources to support interventions in the affected provinces, which include the Eastern Cape.

He announced no additional grants to fund relief efforts or finance repairs to infrastructure in the province but promised government would make financial resources available to tackle the disaster and would approach parliament for a joint sitting on this. He warned that any resources must be used for the purpose for which they are intended and promised oversight to prevent corruption or fraud.

Ramaphosa’s declaration of a new state of disaster comes just weeks after government finally ended the state of disaster that was implemented in March 2020 to manage the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is clear that other areas of the country need emergency measures as well ... cabinet decided to declare a state of national disaster to ensure an effective response across all spheres of government to these extreme weather events,” Ramaphosa said, also citing the destruction at the ports in KwaZulu-Natal, which will have far-reaching implications beyond the province.

But the declaration of national disaster could be viewed with suspicion by critics. The government has recently faced heavy criticism from civil liberty groups for using the wide-ranging powers accorded to it by the Disaster Management Act to impose sweeping regulations that were not subject to public consultation or parliamentary oversight, as the state moved to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Ramaphosa said the declaration of a national disaster will pave the way for the mobilisation of more resources, and give more meaning to recovery efforts across all spheres of government.

He said the Solidarity Fund, which was established to support the country’s financing efforts in response to Covid-19, will be roped in to assist in the recovery drive, opening a dedicated account to which people can contribute.

Ramaphosa will approach parliament’s presiding officers to discuss the disaster.

A comprehensive assessment of the economic cost of these floods still has to be made, but it is clear that it will run into billions of rand for the rebuilding of infrastructure and loss of production, the president said.

The address on Monday evening came as the human and economic costs of the KwaZulu-Natal floods continued to mount, with the death toll now at 443 people and economists warning that the floods and load-shedding could derail SA’s economic recovery this year.

At the weekend, finance minister Enoch Godongwana said R1bn was available as emergency relief.

More than 40,000 people have been affected by the natural disaster. KwaZulu-Natal is SA’s second-largest GDP contributor and has been dealt a triple blow — the Covid-19 pandemic, the July riots and now the floods.

eThekwini alone is estimated to have suffered R5.6bn in damage to infrastructure including roads, bridges, water, electrical and other critical infrastructure. R1bn has been set aside by the national department of human settlement to assist more than 10,000 people who have lost or sustained damage to their homes.

Operations at the Port of Durban, which is one of Africa’s busiest ports, were interrupted, with the risk of major supply chain disruptions across Southern Africa.

“The economy will probably struggle to regain momentum following this latest blow as austerity and power cuts remain drags on activity,” said Virag Forizs, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, in a note on Thursday.

“Beyond the tragic loss of human life, this week’s heavy rains in KwaZulu-Natal province will deliver another blow to economic recovery.”

Update: April 18 2022
This story has been updated throughout. 

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

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