More than 250 people have been killed in severe flooding in South Africa, officials said on Wednesday, a day after heavy rains swept away roads and houses and disrupted shipping from the continent’s biggest port.
The death toll in the floods in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa’s second-most populous province, makes it one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history.
More than 200 millimetres of rain fell on Durban on Tuesday, according to South Africa’s weather service, causing mudslides and opening sinkholes and forcing Maersk, the container operator, to suspend some services.
Shipping containers floated down a submerged motorway and detritus including a fuel tanker was washed out to shore. Thousands of informal dwellings in townships have been destroyed across the province. Maersk has said it is restoring waterside services at the port in Durban but road and rail access remained disrupted.
“The biggest worry is the number of bodies that we are finding,” Nomagugu Simelane, KwaZulu-Natal’s provincial health minister, told the South African broadcaster eNCA on Wednesday, confirming more than 250 deaths.
“The clean-up process is not finished, we are just crossing our fingers that we don’t find any other bodies,” she said.
The scale of the disaster “calls on us to come together as a nation and offer assistance to those who desperately need our care and support,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said on a visit to the region on Wednesday.
Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress is, however, already facing questions about lack of preparation for such storms.
Scientists and planners have warned for years that as one of the continent’s most urbanised and unequal countries, South Africa is not prepared for the impact of severe storms on the crowded shack settlements that surround its biggest cities.
Durban in particular has been plagued by urban decay and weak governance. Informal dwellings have expanded in low-lying and sandy areas, while catchment systems and drainage have gone without maintenance or upgrades.
The ANC narrowly retained control of Durban’s municipality amid broader local election losses for the party last year.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance said on Wednesday that municipal contracts for the politically connected “who build houses with scant regard for even the most basic architectural and engineering safety standards have directly contributed to the destruction”.
KwaZulu-Natal is still rebuilding after South Africa’s worst post-apartheid violence last year, in which ANC infighting over the jailing of Jacob Zuma, the former president, spilled over into days of mass looting and attacks on infrastructure.
Durban already comes near the bottom of global port rankings because of infrastructure bottlenecks and disruptions that hit miners and exporters.
Climate change is likely to have worsened the impact of severe tropical storms that have ravaged Mozambique, Malawi and other southern African nations in recent years, scientists said in a study released this week.