Climate Change

Sunday, August 27, 2006


A recent article by Jorisna Bonthuys in the Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger caught my attention. She looked at the recent floods in the Southern and Eastern Cape and asked the questions: “How far back does the memory of decision makers go when developments in floodplains and wetlands are approved? Does improper soils management influence the extent of floods? What is the effect of wetlands that have been destroyed on the surroundings? Who must be held accountable for damage to infrastructure in areas where developments should never have been allowed in the first place? ” (Bonthuys J. 2006 August 22. Mens-spoor en die vloede. Die Burger; Forum: p13.)

According to Mr Rodney February from the WWF-SA’s (World Wildlife Fund – South Africa) freshwater unit, a lot of the recent flood damage is due to poor decisions on soil management and developments that had been taken decades ago. So it is often difficult to hold the current authorities responsible. Yet, bad decisions are still being taken as pressure to develop more housing and to expand our economy builds. Neither Cape Nature, nor WWF-SA nor WESSA (Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) in principle approve of developments below the 1:50 year flood line or even the 1:100 year flood line and of developments in wetlands or on river banks, yet we see such developments around us springing up on a far too regular basis.

Why are there properties set out in primary dune areas? Why were developers allowed to alter the river courses by filling them up with sand to “produce” more even ground for development? One feels sorry for home owners in Glentana whose entire houses were washed away in the recent floods, but then again those houses should never have been built there in the first place. And yet according to this article about 80% of the town development in areas such as Groot-Brak and Klein-Brak are below flood lines. Somehow it just doesn’t make sense.

Of course rivers have been altered as well and that has a great influence on how water is carried down that river in times of floods. According to Dr. Cecile Reed from the University of Cape Town’ s unit for freshwater ecology, rivers should be managed as a unit from source to sea. He says that almost all rivers in the southern Cape have been altered in some way or another. Rivers have been canalized, because farmers that want to make use of fertile floodplains want to get floodwaters past their properties as fast as possible, without thinking what damage this might cause further downstream. Natural vegetation has been removed along river banks with the result that the rivers’ natural buffers in times of floods have been destroyed. Wetlands also function has buffers in times of flooding, but according to Mr. Japie Buckle from SANBI’s Working for Wetlands Project, more than two-third of the southern Cape’s palmiet wetlands have already been destroyed, mostly because of bad soil management and farming practices. The Duiwenhoks- and Goukou Rivers have been altered greatly and repeated floods in the past few years have consequently damaged wetlands so badly, ripping then apart and creating great dongas through the wetlands that the water table has dropped by several meters. Restoration in such systems is essential if the wetlands are still to function, but once such extensive damage has been done it becomes extremely costly to restore. Yet almost all river systems in the southern Cape need some form of restoration to prevent even further ecosystem decay…

One wonders how this could have happened. Is it just ignorance or truly a lack of knowledge that has led to our rivers becoming sick and dysfunctional? And what lessons will have been learnt by the recent floods? Will decision makers’ memories last? According to climatologist more flash floods are on the cards as our climate becomes warmer… will we wake up in time?


Bonthuys J. 2006 August 22. Mens-spoor en die vloede. Die Burger; Forum: p13.

Image credits:

Karen Marais
BCB Hons NISL student
University of the Western Cape
Private Bag X17



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