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The floods in KwaZulu-Natal caused widespread infrastructure damage such as the destruction of this bridge in Ntuzuma. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU
The floods in KwaZulu-Natal caused widespread infrastructure damage such as the destruction of this bridge in Ntuzuma. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

The founder of the Gift of the Givers humanitarian organisation, Imtiaz Sooliman, who has brought relief worldwide during disasters from war to hurricanes, says the flood devastation in KwaZulu-Natal has caused one of the worst humanitarian crises he has seen in SA.

Sooliman says the number of people affected is far greater than official figures indicate, and he fears the death toll will continue to rise. The devastating flooding, which has so far claimed the lives of almost 500 people, is the deadliest in SA yet. It has caught the attention of the world and global environmental bodies.

At an event hosted by the presidential climate commission last week, environmental affairs minister Barbara Creecy and transport minister Fikile Mbalula said the floods prove that climate change is no longer a slow-onset event but part of the lives of South Africans. Finance minister Enoch Godongwana echoed these sentiments at a separate event in KwaZulu-Natal for the launch of the second phase of the Southern Africa Towards Inclusive Economic Development Programme.

It is estimated that repairing the damage caused by the flooding will cost at least R17bn. Nearly 4,000 homes were destroyed, more than 40,000 people were displaced and more than 600 schools were affected.

Sooliman said the humanitarian crisis is growing worse by the day. “We are working with various departments of government to assist. It has been a painful and heartbreaking experience. Families have lost loved ones; so many have lost all of their children. There are children who have lost parents, and throughout the region [there are people who have] lost everything they ever owned and escaped with only the clothes on their backs.”

The organisation has dispatched engineers, geologists and humanitarian workers across the province where the need is greatest. One of its teams is stationed at Tongaat, north of Durban, where residents have been without fresh running water for more than 24 days and damage to the water reticulation system is expected to take several months to repair.

The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is investigating the situation and has expressed concern about the dire consequences to communities, schools, businesses and hospitals.

While search and rescue teams continue with their efforts to find the missing, Sooliman and his teams are focusing on the more pressing humanitarian crisis. “We are moving drilling teams into Tongaat and surrounds to drill boreholes […] We have drilled four boreholes already. We will install container tanks where necessary.”

Sooliman said the organisation is also beginning construction of a limited number of formal houses and is awaiting the government’s decision on informal housing replacement. The entity’s hotline has been inundated with calls from families still searching for loved ones, and requests from many schools for food parcels and uniforms for children affected by the floods.

“We are now distributing bottled water to schools, clinics, hospitals, mortuaries, old-age homes and orphanages. We are also inundated with daily requests for blankets, mattresses, clothing and items for babies,” he said. “We are also getting calls from many schools asking for help. In one school, 50 pupils are homeless. In some instances pupils are themselves casualties or have just not returned because their families have relocated elsewhere.”

The department of education in the province said about 630 schools have been affected by the disaster, of which 124 schools are seriously damaged and 72 schools remain inaccessible to teachers and pupils. “Preliminary figures indicate that about R442m would be needed to fix the affected schools and replace the damaged educational supplies and equipment, but that amount could still increase,” said KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Kwazi Mshengu.

Business Unity SA (Busa) has appealed to the government to prioritise restoration and reconstruction, and to ensure that the poor and indigent have new homes that can withstand any future storms of this nature. Busa CEO Cas Coovadia said: “The incalculable damage is the loss of life and meagre possessions poor people have lost. Government must focus on reconnecting water and electricity, ensure all access roads to the Durban port are cleared and the port gets back to optimal operation, and in the medium term on rebuilding infrastructure, homes, schools and other social services.

“Government must also ensure we learn lessons from this, including ensuring people don’t rebuild structures on river banks, and work on early-warning mechanisms and responses to these.”

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