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Climate change has been linked to an increase in extreme weather events around the globe – including South Africa.

As rising temperatures disrupt precipitation patterns and the entire water cycle, increasing incidents of flooding – along with shrinking ice sheets, rising sea levels and droughts – are all probable effects of climate change, according to the United Nations. In South Africa, this can be observed in the devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal last year, as well as in various other locations like Parys, Free State, and Coffee Bay in the Eastern Cape, more recently.

“Absolutely, there is a greater risk of floods,” says Ernesta Swanepoel, an attorney specialising in international environmental law who consults to the UN on the link between humanitarian assistance and the impacts of climate change, and a former NSRI volunteer of 10 years. “In fact, it was predicted some time ago that storms and floods will increase in KwaZulu-Natal, and we are already seeing it. Losses and damages, both economic – for example, destruction to infrastructure – and non-economic – for example, loss of lives – will likely increase.”

KZN floods

The detection and attribution of these extreme events to climate change are now also made possible with new advances, says Ernesta, with a recent study concluding that heavy rains leading to devastating floods in Western Europe in July 2021, for example, were made more likely due to climate change.

“I think it is widely acknowledged all over the world that the frequency and severity of these weather events have increased due to climate change,” says NSRI CEO Dr Cleeve Robertson. “As a rescue service, we experience the consequences directly.”

Indeed, the NSRI has always responded to flooding events, says Dr Cleeve, and the organisation recognised almost a decade ago that these were becoming more frequent and that they needed to be prepared.

NSRI volunteers all have the requisite PPE and equipment, and swift water training has been part of the official NSRI training syllabus since 2015. “All NSRI volunteers have access to swift water training, which teaches them when it’s safe to rescue and provides them with basic techniques,” says Dr Cleeve.

KZN floods

The best way to avoid being caught in a flood is to pay attention to the weather warnings and the advice of experts. In the event of unusually heavy rains and flood warnings, it is best to follow the advice of experts that will usually accompany a flood warning. In the absence of this advice, be vigilant of pools of water forming during heavy rainfall, as well as rising river, lake or dam levels.

“Do not travel if there are weather service flood warnings,” says Dr Cleeve. “If you live in low lying areas, move to higher ground. Do not try to cross flooded rivers or roads. Never drive a vehicle through deep water – that is how cars get washed away and the occupants placed in extreme danger.”

Often, flooded rivers are full of floating debris – trees, bushes, refuse and so on, says Dr Cleeve, making it very dangerous to try and swim or move across the water. “It is always safer not to get into the water, even on a boat. If you are cut off, stay where you are if you are safe until you are rescued.”

Make sure you have South Africa’s nationwide emergency response number on your phone (112), as well as the NSRI’s national emergency rescue number (087 094 9774).

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