Mbabane Flash Floods; a Time to Ponder and Act

By Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil, SFA Co-Director, Eswatini and Malawi Hub

On 6th of February 2020, Mbabane residents in the Kingdom of Eswatini experienced unprecedented flash floods which wreaked havoc in the city, flooding the Plaza, The New Mall and the Industrial Area. It was a storm accompanied by lightning, thunder, hail, strong winds and heavy rainfall in a short period of a few hours. Some say that a similar incident occurred in 2005, others say they never saw anything like this in their lives. Was the incident on 6th February a cloud burst? The Cambridge Dictionary describes a “cloud burst” as a heavy fall of rain that begins and ends suddenly, often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Whether it was a cloud burst or not may need verification from the Department of Meteorology. However, no verification is needed  to state that the rainfall/storm/cloudburst brought the city of Mbabane to a halt.

The New Mall car park, which experienced flash flooding on 6 February 2020 – Mbabane, Eswatini

Streams overflowed, leading to roads, car parks and shops being flooded (in some areas up to knee height).  Several cars were affected, possibly damaged beyond repair. A lot of water runoff from the highway also went into the streams in Mbabane city, further contributing to the overflows and flooding. Supermarkets and shops incurred losses when their merchandise got wet/soaked. It is not clear how much the damage from these flash floods cost or how many shops were insured. In addition to businesses getting flooded, the electricity supply in the city was affected. Trees fell and several electric poles snapped or fell, requiring the Eswatini Electricity Company to work all night to restore power to the affected residents of Mbabane.

Such events make one ponder the big global challenge of our times, Climate Change. With Climate change, such heavy downpours are expected to increase in frequency. According to scientists, southern Africa may experience a mean annual temperature rise. Although mean annual rainfall in the region as a whole will decline, an increase in the intensity of high-rainfall events is projected to occur. Rising air and sea surface temperatures have the potential to lead to more frequent and intense tropical storms in the southern Indian Ocean, and can contribute to more frequent droughts.  These trends are going to affect almost all sectors, including public infrastructure and the private sector.

The heavy downpour of 6th February brings to light how infrastructure planning and the construction of commercial buildings can increase vulnerability to flooding. It is time to ask some important questions. Are the highways and roads which divert storm water to streams into the city actually contributing to flash flooding? Are shops and buildings built on low lying areas, including wetlands, a factor contributing to the increasing risk of flooding? Perhaps this is an opportune time to plan interventions to reduce the risk of such climate and weather shocks. We need to consider issues such as climate proofing infrastructure, disaster risk financing, and insurance to minimize vulnerability.

Coincidentally, during the week of the heavy rainfall event, the National Disaster Management Agency was holding a multi-stakeholder workshop at Mbabane. The purpose of the workshop was to provide training in disaster risk financing and how to create a drought risk monitor and management plan, learning from the 2015/16 El Niño induced drought. This is a welcome initiative given that disaster risk reduction and increasing preparedness and mitigation capacity is urgently needed, particularly in the context of rapid urbanization and the accompanying high hazards to which urban populations and their assets are exposed. The nation is also undertaking a National Adaptation Process, where risk reduction for such flash floods may need to be prioritized.

Short Video of the flash flooding on 6 February 2020 – Mbabane, Eswatini

Mbabane city was able to bounce back after this heavy rainfall event. Shops were cleaned up and opened the very next day.  Fallen trees were removed and electricity restored to residents within hours. But the question remains: how many flooding events can we afford in a year? With climate change, we know that the severity and intensity of droughts and floods are expected to increase in future. This calls for greater engagement with the private sector to ensure their participation in climate change adaptation efforts and Disaster Risk Reduction. Additionally, this incident has brought to light the need to integrate green (ecological), grey (built-environment) and blue (water) infrastructure. There is a compelling business case for the private sector to invest in these measures, because the alternative of bearing the costs of the recurring adverse impacts of floods and droughts may be too high for their business operations. There is no time to lose. We do not want future disasters to affect us, and to watch our future slip through our fingers, just like water.


COVID-19: Green Recovery through Tree Planting

By Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil*, SFA Co-Director and Founder of Abundance

Multiple benefits of Tree Planting

Recently, a senior policymaker in Eswatini shared with me a video of mass tree planting in Pakistan as a COVID-19 recovery and climate action project. Construction workers and others who lost jobs due to COVID-19 were given $3 per day to raise seedlings and plant trees while following safety measures of wearing masks and maintaining safe distancing. Pakistan’s tree planting project is inspiring; and is part of the country’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami programme. The origin of the project was before the pandemic, when in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched this ambitious 5 year project to counter the impacts of climate change; rising temperatures, flooding, droughts and other extreme weather. Their ambitious goal is to plant 10 billion trees across the country in 5 years.

In Africa, a similar ambitious tree planting project was implemented by Ethiopia. The highlight was a single day in July 2019, on which people across the country turned out to help with planting 350 million tree seedlings. Recently, in the UK, the Committee on Climate Change wrote a letter to their Prime Minister urging for increased tree planting to be at the heart of the green recovery. As part of COVID-19 recovery, there is need to create thousands of jobs in a short time, which does not require specialist skills and can provide income to the most poor and vulnerable, while at the same time allowing for social distancing. Tree planting ticks all the boxes and additionally, offer the best returns for government spending while moving closer to reaching net-zero emissions. Furthermore, a greener country attracts more tourists and tourism recovery plans are part of post COVID-19 strategies.

Zoonotic diseases and Deforestation

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light that zoonotic diseases that spread from animals to humans and is a sign of how interconnected health of humans and health of ecosystems are. There is a direct correlation of pandemics to deforestation and the health of our ecosystems. For example, the Ebola virus disease; in which bats were the carriers of the virus, spread to non-forest human inhabited areas due to forest fragmentation (which reduced habitats for bats). Deforestation is likely to increase frequent contact between infected wild animals and humans, increasing the threat of pandemics in the future. Hence, it is essential that we protect our existing forests and not encroach into them for expanding our agricultural farms and human settlements.

Forests and Climate Change

Globally, we lose trees at a rate of 50 soccer fields per minute. The forests in our world are some of the most valuable resources we have; besides providing oxygen, cleaning our air, providing a source of food, construction material, and habitats for biodiversity to thrive, most importantly, they are important line of defence against climate change. The United Nations have stated that we have about ten years to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. Tree planting is the easiest, cheapest and most effective climate solution.

However, we need to be careful and not look at tree planting as a panacea for everything. Planting trees in the wrong ecosystems could have adverse impacts for biodiversity and human well-being. Trees emit complex chemicals, some of which warm the planet and the dark leaves of trees can also raise temperatures by absorbing sunlight. Hence, before embarking on tree planting projects, a thorough, detailed, ecological understanding is critical for conservation and reforestation efforts to succeed.

Tree planting and post COVID recovery

Trees are a symbol of life and as we move towards a post-COVID-19 world, tree planting is likely to be part of the mix of projects that countries will implement. The attraction towards tree planting cannot be denied as they support green recovery pathways while providing multiple wins of job creation and resilience building for climate change. However, we need to look at recovery plans holistically, be informed by science and ensure that when we do tree planting, it is the right tree, at the right place for the right purpose.

 

* Dr Pullanikkatil is chairperson of the National Committee (Tourism and Economic Recovery Committee; Unlocking Climate Finance)  set up by the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Affairs in the Kingdom of Eswatini that supports post COVID-19 recovery. The ideas in this article were inspired from discussions with committee members.


Sustainable Development and the Global South

Collaboration with Glasgow School of Art

Future Experiences: Sustainable Development and the Global South

In 2019-2020, the SFA Network collaborated with the Glasgow School of Arts – Product Design on a project entitled the Future Experiences: Sustainable Development and the Global South. You can read more about it here.

The SFA Network is very pleased to announce that the project dataset collection is now live! The record is public and can be accessed here. Many SFA Members took part to the project and we would like to thank everyone for their contribution. They are included as an author on this dataset/project.

We recommend looking at the  ‘Project Journey Map’ and the fantastic ‘Future Experiences Book’ in order to get a feel for what is there. But don’t stop there – this is a tremendously rich resource of output and know-how.  This collaboration with the future designers from the Glasgow School of Art was truly inspiring and refreshing for the SFA team. The impact of this project and the engagement with designers is translating into the recent research applications submitted by the Network.

We encourage you to use and share the material from this project.

DOI: 10.5525/gla.researchdata.1019


The University of Eswatini will host the new SFA Eswatini hub

By Dr Sizwe Mabaso, Hub Director of the Eswatini hub

The Department of Geography, Environmental Science and Planning (GEP), that is hosting the SFA Eswatini hub is under the Faculty of Science and Engineering of the University of Eswatini (Formerly the University of Swaziland). The University consist of three campuses, namely; Kwaluseni Campus (Faculties of Education, Humanities, Science and Engineering, and Social Sciences), Luyengo Campus (Faculties of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences) and Mbabane Campus (Faculty of Health Sciences).

The GEP Department strives to be a centre of academic excellence in both theory and application pertaining to in economic, urban and development geography, geo-information science, environmental social science, natural resource management, geomorphology and climate change. Its mission is to build a sound foundation for geography teaching in schools and to provide expertise, practical solutions and insight in the areas of land-use, spatial planning and the management of environmental resources through the spectrum of effective teaching, research, consultancy and community outreach.

Research in the department is founded on applying sound interdisciplinary principles and methodologically diverse scientific approaches relevant to both the natural and social sciences, in order to address key geographical and environmental questions. Much of our research has an applied and policy relevant focus applicable to a developing country context. With regards to the areas of focus, specific departmental research focus areas of the hugely diverse team include (but not exhaustive): urbanization and settlement patterns, agricultural geography, sustainability and food security, human and social geography, socio-economic analysis and surveys, climate science/modelling, climate change (adaptation and mitigation), land use and land cover change, environmental and spatial modelling, natural hazards and disasters, pure and applied wetland geomorphology (rehabilitation and management), soil erosion and land degradation (and appropriate rehabilitation),  soil/land and water resources management, drainage basin studies, waste management.


The Twin COVID-CLIMATE Crisis

By Deepa Pullanikkatil, SFA Co-Director and Chair of Tourism and Economic Recovery Team – Unlocking Climate Finance for COVID response (Eswatini)

Adversity is the mother of progress” Mahatma Gandhi

Our world is facing extreme adversity in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, with severe effects on economies and human wellbeing. Globally, Governments are busy setting up stimulus packages and recovery plans to get the economy back on a growth trajectory post COVID. COVID-19 and economic recovery dominates the global news today. But just a few months ago, the news reports were about Australia being on fire, near record melting of ice in the Arctic, millions of school children striking on the streets and about the extinction rebellion movement gaining momentum. The United Nations has declared that this is the decade of climate action to have a 50% chance to preventing catastrophic climate change by keeping emissions below 1.5degC below pre-industrial levels. Just a few months ago we realized that “our house is on fire”, and 28 countries declared a climate emergency. But today, amidst the attention given to the COVID emergency, the climate emergency seems to have faded away. Today, our priority is to save lives and bring the economy back to life. We will overcome the COVID-19 crisis eventually, but will we overcome the climate crisis?

The political moment is now, for taking the right actions for a green recovery path. COVID could be a catalyst for greening the world and thereby averting the climate crisis. Instead of unsustainable industrial expansion, we need to include into recovery plans, environment friendly growth, creation of green jobs and actions to take us on low emissions pathways. This could include greening of investments in critical public sector areas, expanding clean energy, moving away from fossil fuels and polluting practices, encouraging transportation that is less polluting and building sustainable infrastructure. Already some countries have started expanding infrastructure for cyclists, companies have announced more work-from-home options for workers and industries such as the Royal Dutch Shell said they would aim to reduce their emissions to net-zero by 2050.

During the lockdowns we have experienced what it would be like for the world when greenhouse gas emissions drop from reduced industrial activity and reduced traffic with humans under lockdown. Beautiful blue skies, clean air and thriving wildlife were some of the signs of a healing earth that we have seen during the lockdowns. There could be a double win coming out of this twin crisis. Governments can help their economies recover, at the same time help solve the climate crisis and achieve their climate commitments faster.

This is the time to transform our thinking.  This adversity can be turned into an opportunity.