Durban’s climate goals are bold – but its poor feel left behind
Written by Kendrick Lebron on May 19, 2021
But these days, a WhatsApp group on her smartphone pings with early flood warnings for residents, and another city-designed app reminds her and 14 other residents to monitor flood risks and river pollution near her home.
“When I wake up, I feel I have lots of work to do, to protect the river and also protect the people who live here,” said the 33-year-old mother, standing outside her shack in the rapidly growing settlement.
Nqanula is an “Enviro-Champ”, a resident selected by the city of Durban in 2019 to help tackle pollution and climate-related shocks in her community, from illegal dumping to river erosion and flooding.
She and others chosen for their community work are paid about 2,500 rand ($175) a month – funded by the Development Bank of Southern Africa – to clear invasive plants, report illegal dumping and monitor sewage leaks and pollution.
Seaside Durban, South Africa’s third-largest city with more than 3 million people, is part of the C40 Cities Network, a group of nearly 100 cities around the world working to drive faster action on climate change.
The cities have each committed to delivering climate action plans designed to spur uptake of clean energy, boost adaptation to climate threats and turn the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change into an on-the-ground reality.
These days, many of the plans also seek to harness recovery efforts from the global coronavirus pandemic, including massive new government spending, to drive a swifter green transition.
Last September, Durban released its first Climate Action Plan (CAP) as part of the C40 coalition, outlining strategies to green its energy, cut flood risk, improve waste management and conserve water, with a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
Itumeleng Masenya, an emissions reduction specialist for eThekwini Municipality, which oversees the city of Durban, said prioritising vulnerable residents is a key focus.
In Durban, more than a million people are estimated to be jobless, in part as a result of COVID-19, and many are at risk of growing climate threats, from flooding to droughts.
Masenya said the city wants to offer them a better life as it pursues climate action.
“We are facing a balancing act. We need to reduce emissions but also create economic opportunities,” she said from her office in central Durban.
But slum residents say new green opportunities have been slow in coming – and many feel frustrated at what they see as the leisurely pace of change and, often, a lack of consultation with – and spending in – the most vulnerable communities.
“We need participation so that people see themselves in these grand plans,” said Shanice Firman, a climate change project officer with the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), an environmental justice organisation.
‘Consult people affected’
Durban’s strategies to cut its emissions and lower climate risks for residents range from grassroots initiatives such as the Enviro-Champ push to rehabilitating coastal dunes as a buffer against flooding and shoreline erosion.
The city is also trying to manage its waste better and reform laws so that emissions from all new buildings reach net-zero by 2030.
That last aim is a challenge in a place with steamy summers and a growing need for air conditioning, including in high-rise seaside tourist hotels, as climate change brings hotter temperatures.
The city has developed a work plan to understand what new legislation is needed to drive greener buildings, what the costs might be and how incentives could help owners make the changes.
But Durban – like much of South Africa – suffers from persistent and worsening joblessness. Its official unemployment rate surged past 20% late last year as the coronavirus pandemic hit businesses.
Such slowdowns have dented city tax revenues around the world, leaving many with less to spend on green aims – and Durban is no exception.
Local environmental activists fear the government will struggle to deliver its ambitious aims, and that vulnerable residents won’t benefit enough.
High levels of inequality, recent court cases over municipal corruption involving the city’s former mayor and gaps in communication often have left Durban’s civil society at loggerheads with local government over the years, activists said.
They are demanding a stronger voice for local people – especially the most vulnerable – in plans to tackle climate change, environmental pollution and other problems.
“Climate change affects the poor,” said Desmond D’Sa, SDCEA’s founder and winner of the 2014 international Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded annually to grassroots eco-activists.
“If the city wants solutions, they need to consult people affected by floods and pollution … where they live,” said D’Sa who worked in chemical factories in Durban before co-founding SDCEA in 1996 to tackle the environmental harm he witnessed.
He said the Enviro-Champs programme was a positive, but still relatively isolated, initiative.
The city mayor’s office did not grant repeated requests for an interview to explain its programmes and respond to the concerns of residents.
The worsening flooding and other climate-related threats Durban’s poorest face are increasingly evident, environmental experts say.
At the Quarry Road settlement, Smiso Bhengu, a climate scientist working with the city and helping steer the Enviro-Champs effort, pointed to shacks along the Palmiet River propped up with old tyres and wooden poles to stop them sliding into the flood-prone river.
“We need to work together, but communities also need to be empowered to help themselves,” he said, peering into the trash-choked river as residents emptied buckets of dirty water into it.
To tourists, Durban is best known for its seaside promenade, beaches and nearby nature reserves. But it is also an industrial hub, home to oil refineries, paper factories and a bustling port.
The South Durban Industrial Basin has the largest number of petrochemical companies in the country, responsible for refining 60% of South Africa’s petroleum, according to the CAP.
But one big crude oil refinery, a 120,000-barrel-per-day plant operated by Engen, is now shutting after a fire last December, with plans to be converted into a storage facility.
In a statement, the company’s CEO cited unaffordable costs to meet a federal government drive for cleaner fuel – including refinery upgrades – as part of the reason for the closure, along with lower global oil prices.
Durban’s most recent greenhouse gas inventory shows industry is responsible for 32% of city emissions, with transport contributing 40%, homes 13% and the commercial sector 9%.
To lower industry emissions, the city’s climate strategy envisions a pivot towards renewable energy, including training programmes to boost its use and more industry energy audits.
But residents say that, over the years, Durban’s industries have left a legacy of pollution, including air pollution that can aggravate cases of COVID-19 during the current crisis.
Standing at a viewpoint with the blackened Engen refinery to one side and the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean to the other, SDCEA air quality officer Bongani Mthembu pointed to homes stacked alongside refineries and factories.
Their location is a legacy of apartheid spatial planning that placed mostly Black communities in noxious industrial zones, environmental activists said.
“The air quality here is terrible. People that live here have cancer and asthma, but they can’t relocate because it’s expensive,” Mthembu said.
Engen and major refinery SAPREF, which is also located in Durban, did not respond to emailed queries on pollution levels.
SDCEA uses a low-cost air-quality measuring system to capture and analyse air.
“We have found a whole cocktail of carcinogenic chemical emissions over the years,” said Mthembu, demonstrating how to take samples.
Siva Chetty, a chemical engineer who was with the city’s air quality management team until 2011, said he was not aware of any updated and accessible air quality reports for Durban since his departure.
To achieve its climate aims and clean up pollution, the city will need to tighten its regulations and then enforce them with laws and fines, Chetty said.
In 2017 and 2019, Durban suffered floods that together tore down hundreds of homes, killed dozens of people and displaced thousands.
Durban’s climate plan estimates such floods will become more frequent, hitting the city on average three times a year by 2050 unless global climate-heating emissions are reduced.
About a quarter of the city’s residents live in more than 550 informal settlements, about 30% of which are located in floodplains, according to the plan.
Housing activists fear that as COVID-19 pushes more people from rural areas to the city seeking work, the population of informal townships built on floodplains and erosion-prone slopes will grow.
“People in informal settlements face shack fires, floods and overcrowding and poor sanitation,” said Sibusiso Zikode, a founding member of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a national shackdwellers movement.
In the Kennedy Road community, which has grown up along a steep hill since the 1970s, shacks are crammed against one another, creating a collage of corrugated iron strung together with wires carrying illegal electricity connections.
Trucks roll in through the day, dumping an array of waste, from sand to cardboard boxes to old electrical appliances, at the adjacent Bisasar Road landfill, where local people work as wastepickers and recyclers.
A gas-to-electricity project was launched at the site in 2007 to convert methane emissions from rotting rubbish into electricity. Local government reports say the landfill was set to stop receiving waste altogether in 2015.
But informal dumping continues, and smoke billows into the air as workers burn the plastic coverings off old wiring, to harvest the valuable copper inside for recycling.
The city’s climate action plan aims to halve the amount of waste put in landfill sites by 2023 – with a cut of 90% by 2050 – through more recycling and reuse of waste, to prolong the sites’ lifespans and reduce emissions.
The effort includes community awareness programmes, more recycling containers in high-density housing areas, efforts to formalise waste picking and plans to construct a new waste-to-energy trash incinerator.
In the north of Durban, Buffelsdraai, a newer methane-capturing landfill, could help the city slash 10 million tonnes of climate-changing gases over its lifetime, according to the C40 website.
But D’Sa said activists have not been allowed in to verify its processes, and city officials did not reply to requests for information about the project.
As well as better managing waste, Durban’s climate action plan outlines strategies to green informal settlements through tree-planting, as well as to build climate-resilient homes and manage stormwater overflow.
The city also launched an interactive online effort in 2015 to help residents assess the cost and logistics of installing their own solar panels.
But residents question the ambitious aims.
“We are poor, the government is poor, so we better just help ourselves instead of waiting for help,” said Fiona Ndlovu, a 62-year-old former domestic worker who lost her job during the pandemic and had to turn to waste-picking.
Fishing and farming
Durban’s small-scale anglers – who for generations have fished from its piers to earn an income – say climate change impacts and ocean pollution are worrying them too.
They say they have seen water levels rise, the ocean heat up and fish diversity decrease over the years.
They are now pushing back against potential oil and gas exploration off the Durban coast that they fear will also affect water quality.
“We have been doing this for generations, in harmony with the ocean, but we fear there won’t be any fish left for our children,” said Riaaz Khan, chairperson of the KZN Subsistence Fisherfolk Forum.
Small-scale farmers have similar concerns.
“We are battling droughts, floods and diseases already,” said Smith Ramdeva, 64, a farmer from nearby Pietermaritzburg who comes into the city to sell his produce at Clairwood market.
“It is impossible to farm organically. We have to use four or five chemicals to fight new pests and funguses,” he said, lifting a cabbage to expose “club root”, a mould attacking the vegetable that Ramdeva says is worsening as temperatures rise.
He and other farmers say more intense heat means the lack of accessible refrigeration in the market has led to produce rotting faster – a problem evident from the stench of discarded vegetables near their stalls.
Durban’s government has stepped in to provide training, tools and seedlings to help small-scale farmers adapt to climate pressures through an Agro-Ecology Programme established in 2018.
The city’s climate plan envisions a 50% increase in locally produced food by 2030, which would both fight food insecurity and reduce emissions associated with importing produce.
But many farmers at Clairwood Market said they had not heard of the programme.
“Climate change is affecting us already,” said Ramdeva, sorting through his vegetables. “The city must come and speak to us, so we can tell them what we are living through.”
At the more-than-century-old Warwick Market, about 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) away, vendors sell everything from patterned clothing to food, beadwork and traditional Zulu medicinal herbs.
Asiye Etafuleni, a local organisation that supports informal economic spaces such as markets and street vending, has been pushing for efforts to reduce the risk of flooding at the market, through design changes like better stormwater drainage.
Informal recyclers there – who collect waste like cans and cardboard – say their work contributes to a greener Durban. But they don’t yet see themselves included in the city’s plans to become climate-smart.
He said he was often chased away by police officers who think he is loitering in public spaces or making a mess.
Richard Dobson, project leader at Asiye Etafuleni, said while there is frustration at the city government’s lack of consultation, “we need to keep connecting, to be strategic allies for social justice”.
Firman, the SDCEA climate-change project officer, said talking more to those on the frontlines of climate risks and action, to get their views and help them see the benefits of change, would let the city accelerate its green aims.
People need to “see a different version of what Durban can become”, she said.