With its coastal forests, sugarcane farms and sweeping beaches, South Africa’s Durban might appear to be an ideal “spongy” city - one capable of absorbing water, which can be useful in combatting both flood disasters and drought.
But when flooding hit Durban in April last year, it destroyed homes, damaged roads and bridges, and washed away entire families - leaving the city with a death toll of more than 500.
One year after the city’s devastating floods, green experts are highlighting the importance of using what cities already have - such as parks and rivers - to reduce risks, and figuring out what else they need to be as resilient as possible as climate change threats intensify.
A city’s ability to absorb water - referred to as its “sponginess” - is one key to withstanding climate shocks, environmental researchers say, with sponginess dependent on the amount of greenery and other water storage available.
But sponginess is just a starting point, they say, noting that policies, funding and infrastructure to protect communities are equally important in building resilience against future weather-related disasters.
That includes things like prioritising better drainage, improving urban planning and public messaging, and ensuring good governance is in place.
“You can have as much sponginess as you want, but if people are forced to live within flood plains, (their homes) are going to be damaged,” said Matthew Phillips, a senior water engineer with global design firm Arup, which does research on the issue.
You can have as much sponginess as you want, but if people are forced to live within flood plains, (their homes) are going to be damaged. Floods will come, and cities need to do everything they can to prepare for them.
Matthew Phillips, senior water engineer, Arup
From the ongoing drought in Somalia to recent flooding in Indonesia, experts warn that such natural disasters will become more frequent as emissions from burning fossil fuels such as gas, oil and coal keep rising.
“Floods will come, and cities need to do everything they can to prepare for them,” Phillips said in an interview.
The term “sponge cities” was coined in 2013 by Kongjian Yu - an architect and professor at Peking University - to describe cities using nature-based solutions to absorb and retain water, as opposed to concrete infrastructure to channel it away.
Design firm Arup uses satellite imagery, artificial intelligence and machine learning to calculate a city’s “sponginess” rating - ranging from 1 per cent to 100 per cent.
The company calculates how much urban surface area is covered by ‘blue and green infrastructure’ - including grass, trees, ponds and lakes - and how much is covered in ‘grey infrastructure’, such as concrete, pavement and buildings.
Its digital mapping tool allows cities to gauge the best use of available space - from rainwater harvesting to ponds and inner-city gardens - to boost sponginess, and to determine the risks of not doing so.
Arup’s most recent sponginess report - from 2022 - examined five African cities - Cairo, Durban, Kigali, Lagos and Nairobi - with Durban earning the second sponginess rating at 40 per cent.
By comparison, more developed and wealthy cities such as London and Sydney scored 22 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.
Cities with more high-rise buildings, tarmac roads and pavements have often expanded and urbanised at the expense of their natural resources, climate experts say. Developing cities, meanwhile, have the potential to grow while preserving nature.
Natural ways of absorbing urban water are about 50 per cent more economical than man-made solutions, and are 28 per cent more effective, according to research by Arup and the World Economic Forum.
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