By the time President Cyril Ramaphosa called a state of emergency on April 19 2022, at least 435 people were dead and 54 were missing in the massive storm that slammed the city of Durban. Thousands lost their homes and businesses. Roads and bridges were torn away, communications knocked out, sewerage works gutted, and power grids destroyed. The initial damage was estimated at R17-billion, although the final bill might run even higher than R25-billion.
The devastating climate event — the most catastrophic storm to hit South Africa in recorded history — was well documented by local and international news.
In a reflection on the storm a year later, Media Hack Collective’s The Outlier publication produced A Perfect Storm to look beyond the event itself. We wanted to know what could be done to mitigate some of the damage from future climate events, which will continue to increase as the planet heats up. Through a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, we approached the topic with an eye on solutions from a “coastal resilience” perspective — or the ability of a coastal city to bounce back from climate events.
The project included a deep dive story, including explainers, data analysis and visualisation, and a resource guide for African journalists interested in reporting about coastal resilience in their communities.
The core project team was made up of Alastair Otter (data visualisation), Laura Grant (data visualisation, analysis and research), Leonie Joubert (reporting, research and writing) and Tanya Pampalone (research, writing, editing and project management). Here’s what we learned from the process.
How did the project begin?
TP: Climate change is one of our main interest areas, alongside other development issues, like education and health. The Earth Journalism Network’s call for proposals for coastal resilience came right when the Durban floods hit. It was a natural fit for us.
At its core, coastal resilience is a solutions-based issue. Why was that important to you, as a journalist, to be able to tell the climate change story from this perspective?
LG: The Outlier exists to be an authoritative, accessible and inspiring source of information so people feel empowered to make decisions on the issues that matter in their lives. So we approach stories from the perspective of “how can we give people useful information?” Using data as a source is an important part of this as is finding solutions rather than just documenting disaster. We don’t want to leave people feeling hopeless.
What was the most difficult to understand about coastal resilience?
TP: After an initial dive into the reams of available case studies, academic literature, urban planning documents, and government, nonprofit, and civil society analysis, a succinct assessment of the key elements or data points that can measure a city’s coastal resilience aspects were still murky. That’s partly because every community has a unique set of issues, but also because the Global South presents hurdles that Western scenarios — where a lot of the research and case studies have emerged from — don’t neatly fit. But we used a lot of this background when writing up our resource guide, which we wrote up for other journalists reporting on coastal resilience.
LJ: From the writer’s perspective, the greatest challenge of this project was to lift out the most important messages from a comprehensive but extremely complex body of existing scientific literature relating to climate impacts on Global South cities, wider development challenges, and how to build for better resilience in an ever more challenging future.
How did the project evolve?
LG: Initially, we wanted to do a more data-driven story, but we struggled to find enough publicly accessible data. We also realised that we ran the risk of creating a textbook. We needed to weave the academic research and data into a narrative that people could relate to. Durban was a great example because the 2022 flood was not the first the city had experienced, so a lot of research had been done on resilience. Focusing on the Quarry Road community also allowed us to humanise the story and look at a potential solution for the most vulnerable communities.
What was the most difficult part/s of working with this data?
LG: Finding it. Once you have it, it’s not that difficult to work with. Deciding the best way to present it is often what takes a lot of thought and time. For this project, the geographical data Alastair used to map the median shoreline over a number of years along the eThekwini coast was very complicated. But the people at Digital Earth Africa, who make satellite data for the African continent available, were really helpful.
How did you decide to focus on Quarry Road as a sort of “case study within a case study”?
LJ: I wanted to tell a compelling narrative using journalistic long-form. But by zooming in on one person’s story, in one part of the bigger city and river system, many other important issues would be less visible. For this hybrid story, where the narrative journalism voice blends with explainers, I was fortunate to find an individual whose lives in a community where extensive research had been done and whose experience of the flood event demonstrated the most pressing issues that lower-income communities and cities face.
As a longtime environmental journalist, was there anything that surprised you in your reporting and research?
LJ: The more time I spend researching and writing about these topics, the more I realise how little I know and how much I still have to learn. What surprises me more and more, too, is that so much information and knowledge about city-scale development issues in the context of climate collapse exists, yet not much of it appears in the media. Most of these city-level development issues don’t shoe-horn into a single beat but cut across them. Journalists need to appreciate where their own beat — politics, economics, metro-reporting, health, housing, service delivery — overlap with climate and weather-related issues, and development.
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What did you find the most difficult part of the reporting process?
LJ: South African city personnel have restrictive protocols for dealing with the media. This makes it extremely difficult to get official comment, especially when it relates to issues as complex and technical as those in this story. Interviewing experts often involves three or more rounds of on-the-record conversation as the journalist’s insights into the specifics of a story grow. But city media protocols made this almost impossible.
Fortunately, many of the city officials we needed to get on record had presented their findings relating to the Durban floods at various public workshops, and the recordings were available on the internet. Without access to these recordings, much of the critical information used in the story would not have been easily accessible, if at all.
This was also an unusually challenging project since the body of scientific literature relating to the subject is vast. The process of sifting through it, lifting out the most important ideas relating to this case study and condensing it took considerably more time and mental heavy-lifting than anticipated. However, this is not a challenge to overcome, per se, but rather a reflection on the nature of science writing as a discipline and one that can be planned for.
What tools did you use in data collection, analysis and visualisation? What were the most helpful in telling the story?
LG: We used a lot of tools. I suppose the most useful for data collection and analysis are Google Sheets and R. For mapping, we used QGIS, Leaflet and Mapshaper the most. For visualisations we used D3, and sometimes Flourish and Figma.
With more time and resources, what would you have done? Looking back on the process, what would you have done differently?
LG: We started this project months after the floods had happened. Initially, we hoped to be able to identify the parts of the city that had been hardest hit by looking at news reports and satellite images, and from those identify a community(ies) to focus on. That approach wasn’t successful. We reached out to journalists we knew were based in Durban (we’re based in Johannesburg) to tap into local knowledge, but that wasn’t particularly helpful either. We were looking for a solutions story. If we’d wanted to report on people still living in shelters months after their homes were destroyed, or broken water treatment plants, it would have been easier.
I’m not sure, in retrospect, if being in Durban would have made this process any quicker. But perhaps tapping into the academic research community earlier may have speeded up the process.
We also spent a lot more time than expected looking for data specific to Durban. We found map data in JSON files thanks to a serendipitous conversation with a former colleague at a conference. Before that, we were not sure what we’d be able to map. We found rainfall data specific to the April 2022 floods only in papers written by SA Weather Service researchers. The data available online was for average annual and monthly rainfall and that only went to the level of the province, not the city. Even collecting information about previous extreme weather events that had hit Durban — not more broadly KwaZulu-Natal — was time-consuming. If I had to do it again, I would dedicate more resources and budget to collecting data.
After doing background research for this story, we found that coastal resilience, as a subject, was complicated and wide-ranging and that we needed to bring on board an experienced climate change journalist, who is comfortable working with scientists and knows the South African climate change landscape if we wanted to do this story well.