12/01/2011 10:37 EST | Updated 01/31/2012 05:12 EST

Storm Clouds Over Durban


After more than a decade of living on Canada's West Coast, I consider myself a connoisseur of rain. Until Sunday night's epic rain and windstorm here in Durban, I thought I'd seen it all. Around 7 p.m. the skies opened up -- dousing the city with sheets of rain, driving wind and purple lightning. Dry, safe and ensconced in my hotel, I was a little thrilled by the relentless power of it all.

I'd resent these feelings the next morning.

When I arrived at the International Convention Centre I learned the rainstorm, which had delighted me the previous night was a killer. While the numbers are still evolving, at least eight people living in Durban's poorest informal settlements (collectively known as the Abahlali baseMjondolo, or 'Shack Dwellers' movement), died as flood waters and rain washed away their homes. Brad Johnson shares the hard numbers at ThinkProgress Green:

10 people in KwaZulu-Natal were killed, 700 houses destroyed, and thousands left homeless following torrential rains on Sunday. According to the South Africa Weather Bureau, 2.5 inches of rain fell last night in Durban, which had already recorded 8.2 inches for November, almost double its average.

It is appropriate then, rather than ironic, that the UN climate talks began the morning after this disaster. After all, this is conference where parties are deciding to fill the Green Climate Fund. Established in Cancun last December, it is designed to provide developing countries with money for adaptation so they can be better prepared for storms like the one on Sunday night. And so that the extremely poor, those whose homes exist without foundations, have access to solutions and tools to help keep the ground from literally washing away under their feet. In an op-ed posted on their website, the Abahlali called for UN negotiators to act and recognize "the full force of what extreme weather does to the poor."


Abahlali baseMjondolo

Whose interests will this Conference of the Parties serve if the poor are outside busy dealing with effect of the floods which are the direct result of our vulnerability to bad weather in the shacks? How can the world begin these talks without going and experiencing the effect and the reality of how the change in climate will affect the people in Durban whose lives are already most precarious? Today it is clear that these talks will take us no where if they ignores the reality that those who will suffer the consequences of the change in climate the most are the poor. So, excluding the poor in these talks will not help any of us. ...The rich have caused and are causing climate change but it is us, the poor, who will pay the greatest price. The rich, in South Africa and around the world, have to be called to order. Our safety depends on this.

Some of the most impoverished communities in Southern Africa surround Durban. While no official population record exists, residents are estimated to number in the tens of thousands. If you would like to learn more about the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, I encourage you to watch A Place in the City, a short documentary about the settlement and its quest for recognition and support.

Even though the Durban UN delegates see is beautiful and clean (so much so, that an employee of the hotel adjacent mine is tasked with polishing the garbage cans every morning), this is not a sign that climate change isn't happening in Africa right now. There are poor people whose lives are being cut short because of inaction in this very building.

As the COP17 talks wind down for the day and we look towards tomorrow, the Abahlali are on my mind. I hope they're on the minds of negotiators as well.

Photo Courtesy: David Ntseng for Abahlali baseMjondolo.