By Christina Culwick, Gauteng City-Region Observatory, South Africa
In November 2016, Ekurhuleni (South Africa) was hit by a spate of heavy floods that left people dead, houses washed away, cars under water and infrastructure irreparably damaged. These floods came in the wake of an extended drought which was experienced across the country. A quick assessment of the situation may lead to the conclusion that freak weather events are on the rise, and that floods are the inevitable consequence of extreme rainstorms. However, cause and effect are seldom so neatly defined, particularly in urban settings.
There are increasing suggestions that extreme weather events and climate change will have the greatest impact in cities, where people are concentrated and many of the natural systems that could provide buffers against extreme weather have been removed or degraded. When one starts to deconstruct the causes and impacts of natural disasters, the messiness and interconnectedness of contributing factors quickly become evident. Natural disasters occur at the intersection of social, political and environmental systems.
There is growing emphasis within both academia and practice on the need for integrated knowledge and disaster management solutions (Mercer et al 2010). However this is only possible through rethinking problems and combining a range of knowledge which is traditionally kept separate (Robinson 2008). Disasters, such as those experienced in Ekurhuleni, provide opportunities to reflect on the current understanding of disasters and approaches to managing them, and find more effective ways of anticipating, preparing and coping with disasters.
A recently published article in Area (Culwick and Patel, 2016) uses set of floods in Atlasville, Ekurhuleni, which took place between 2006 and 2010, to make the case for transdisciplinary approaches in disaster risk reduction. The Atlasville community experienced a series of floods between 2016-2010. Depending on who one spoke to, different people had different assessments of what led to the unprecedented floods in the areas. There was evidence to support some claims that the floods were associated with heavy rainfall events, or extended periods of rain. Other claims placed greater emphasis on the failings of the municipality in proactively managing flood risk by neglecting maintenance of the stormwater system, allowing upstream developments without sufficient rainwater management interventions and poor coordination between municipal departments. Based on their assessment of the cause of the floods, different people came to different conclusions about what flood management response would be most appropriate.
However, if the range of knowledge and perceptions are combined it is possible to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation. Culwick and Patel (2016) explore how, when people are able to reframe the problem in ways that cut across sectors and individual perspectives, it becomes much easier to see interconnections, blindspots and where different components have a compounding effect. The interventions that emerged from integrating the different knowledge and perceptions highlighted the importance of not just a single approach, but a multi-pronged approach that deliberately enhances the absorptive and adaptive capacity within each of the natural, infrastructural, municipal and social systems.
The significance of the research findings is twofold. Firstly, the community’s knowledge and social capital emerged as an important resource to assist with monitoring, adaptation and disaster response. Secondly, in the context of disaster management, individual factors in isolation may not pose major threat of disaster, however when these factors compound they can lead to significant disaster risk. It is thus critical to adopt an integrated approach to understanding and managing disaster risk.
About the author: Christina Culwick is a research at Gauteng City-Region Observatory. Her research interests lie in urban sustainability transitions, resilience, environmental governance, and transforming Gauteng towards a liveable, inclusive and just city-region.
Chernick I and Mbangeni L 2016 6 Killed in Gauteng flood horror IOL News
Joubert J 2016 SA drought not broken after driest year in history The Tines
Culwick C and Patel Z 2016 United and divided responses to complex urban issues: insights on the value of a transdisciplinary approach to flooding risk Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12282.
Mercer J Kelman I Taranis L and Suchet-Pearson S 2010 Framework for integrating indigenous and scientific knowledge for disaster risk reduction Disasters 34 214–239
Robinson J 2008 Being undisciplined: Transgressions and intersections in academia and beyond Futures 40(1) 70-86