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Climate change is the next frontier in public health — and our century’s biggest threat to wellness. Human activities are making the atmosphere warmer. This means that extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent, which is bad news for our physical and mental health.

HomeSpecial ReportsClimate change#COP27: These KZN flood victims' fates were sealed years ago

#COP27: These KZN flood victims’ fates were sealed years ago

  • Experts say that climate change is to blame for these floods and they will happen more often if more is not done to curb the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere warming.
  • For the next 8 days, world leaders are meeting in Egypt at the United Nations 27th Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP27) to discuss how we can prevent the temperature target racing out of reach.

Nokwazi Mbambo, 19, was in her bed in Lindelani, an informal settlement in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, listening to the rain thundering down on the corrugated iron roof of her family’s shack. 

She got up from her bed and went to cuddle up next to her mother for comfort. 

Someone was knocking on the door, urgently. Mbambo and her mom ignored it, willing themselves to fall asleep. 

Then there was a knock again. 

This time there was shouting too. 

Her mother got up to open the door, Mbambo close behind, and the two found their distraught neighbour on their doorstep: “Your house is moving!” the neighbour screamed frantically. 

The next moment, there was a huge gust of wind and a loud bang. 

The corrugated iron roof that sheltered the Mbambos just moments ago had blown away.

It was too late to save their belongings — as they scrambled out of their home, they grabbed what few things they could.

While making their way to their neighbour’s house, where they would spend the night, Mbambo watched as her dwelling was washed away. 

“I lost everything. My school books, my ID, even my laptop,” she recounts, speaking to Bhekisisa at a make-shift shelter in the Ntuzuma F district community hall, about 15 kilometres from her former home. The shelter was set up by the state for people displaced by the floods, which left 448 people dead and more than 8 500 homes destroyed by the government’s count. 

The community hall was supposed to be temporary lodging, but six months later, Mbambo and her mom are still there — with little hope of leaving. 

Outside the hall, tents have now been set up to accommodate smaller families. 

The tents situated outside the community hall in Ntuzuma F, where small families have been placed to create more space inside the hall. (Zano Kunene, Bhekisisa)

Not far away, on the streets of Durban’s central business district is Mfundo Shezi, 32. On the night of the floods, while searching for shelter from the rain, he watched as his ID and a month’s supply of HIV treatment were washed away.

“I lost my ID book, even all my blankets and clothes were washed away. Even my medication for the weekend, I had a container for a whole month’s [antiretroviral] tablets.”

When people with HIV aren’t on treatment, the virus can multiply in their blood, which makes it harder for their bodies to fight off infections. 

Meanwhile, almost 9 000 kilometres away, in the Egyptian city of Sharm El-Sheikh, world leaders are gathered for the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) running from 6 to 18 November. 

It’s the first COP meeting held in Africa, a region that’s likely to bear the brunt of a changing climate due to the Earth getting warmer since countries started burning coal to fuel their economies around the mid-1800s, experts say.  

A rainstorm such as the one that caused the KwaZulu-Natal floods, for instance, could happen twice as often as about 150 years ago, when the atmosphere’s average temperature was 1.2 degrees Celsius lower, found scientists at the World Weather Attribution Service.

In Egypt, politicians will make plans — again — to keep to the goal of the Paris Agreement, which came into effect in 2016 and aims to prevent the average global temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (so the period before countries started to burn coal to fuel their economies). 

The Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 countries, including South Africa, and is legally binding.

The treaty says we should aim to keep within a 1.5-degree rise, as this would curb the worst effects of climate change. We need to do this by reducing the amount of fossil fuels we burn that emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Gases like carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide trap heat in the atmosphere, making the Earth warmer. 

But it’s already too late for Mbambo and her community. She says her life has been changed forever. 

Some of the places where people sleep and store their belongings inside of the make-shift shelter in a community hall in Ntuzuma F. (Zano Kunene, Bhekisisa)

And a report released in 2021 shows it’s not only Mbambo’s community facing such floods — the world is way behind on achieving the Paris Agreement’s targets.

The report shows that there’s a 50:50 chance that temperatures will exceed the 1.5 degree mark in the next five years

But, even if we go past the 1.5-degree mark, it is possible to keep the temperature below 2 degrees. If we can reduce carbon dioxide emissions drastically until 2050, or even completely stop them from increasing after 2050, it is possible to stay on track.

In September 2021, South Africa released a revised version of the action plan signatories of the Paris Agreement must set up, called the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which is much more ambitious than we pledged to achieve in 2015: instead of capping our emissions to the equivalent of up to 510-million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030, we’re now allowing ourselves to only go up to 420-million tonnes. 

Data from Climate Action Tracker, however, shows that despite the revised cuts, South Africa will not reduce emissions enough to meet its NDC target range for 2030.

Back at the shelter outside Durban, Mbambo says she struggles to concentrate when trying to do school work because there are children running around and playing in the community hall. Some days she doesn’t even go to her college, she says, because she’s often short on transport money to get there.

Shezi’s health has taken a knock. 

He went two weeks without his antiretroviral treatment, because the nonprofit centre where he gets his treatment, TB HIV Care, was closed due to the floods.

Because he didn’t have his ID, he was turned away at a local hospital where he was looking to get his pills instead. Administrators need this document to open a file for people who aren’t already in their system. 

This was the first time since starting treatment in 2021 that he didn’t take his medication every day. 

At her new, temporary home, Mbambo feels grateful for shelter from the rain, a mattress she shares with her mom, food every day and a clinic down the road. 

But she wants her old life back, she says, wrapping her pink gown tightly around her body. 

In matching slippers, she begins to climb the stairs leading back into the community hall. 

“I want to start afresh next year.”

Zano Kunene is a health journalist at Bhekisisa.