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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A series of floods in South Africa earlier this month left at least 443 people dead and 13,000 homes destroyed, causing Catholic Church leaders to point to the growing climate change crisis.

The floods hit South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal and Duran provinces, which were also hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and the former was also the scene of protests following the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma on corruption charges.

Father Peter-John Pearson, the director of the Southern African Bishops’ Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office, noted that “it has been an awful time for the Province of KwaZulu-Natal.”

“It is also an area driven by strong factionalism and politically motivated deaths. So the levels of despair are understandably high. There seems to be no obvious silver lining anywhere. Four hundred and forty three people have died, 13,000 homes destroyed, 500 schools and personal property loss, which makes for multi-layered devastation,” he told Crux.

Archbishop Siegfried Mandla Jwara of Durban has put down the disaster to climate change and aging infrastructure.

“Last night in church I talked a lot about climate change because there are people who don’t quite understand, but now we can see its consequences,” Jwara said during his Easter homily.

Pearson told Crux that the devastation which has hit the poor particularly hard underscores an overlooked reality in the fight against extreme weather – the fact that protecting people is not just about tackling environmental problems; it is also about tackling social issues.

“As is always the case in these sad occurrences, it is the poor who suffer most. It is the informal housing that is most susceptible, the poor and long neglected infrastructure such as drainage systems, good roads and such conditions typical of under-resourced areas that compound tragedy with tragedy,” he said.

“Had the areas been properly serviced, the infrastructure implemented or maintained, better housing provided for the homeless, some portion of the devastation would have been at least somewhat mitigated. Alongside the human contribution and linked to it is the contribution of climate change and environmental degradation and this must serve as yet another warning to take the changes seriously and to prioritize mitigation strategies with a special emphasis on the poor,” the priest continued.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster due to the floods, and announced that the government had $67 million to help those most affected.

However, Pearson fears that money might not reach those in need.

“The government has released huge sums of money to begin the rebuilding work. There is a deep suspicion that as with COVID, monies will be channeled into private pockets, tender processes will be rigged and political interference will dilute the response,” he told Crux.

The president sought to allay such fears, noting that “there can be no room for corruption, mismanagement or fraud of any sort.”

“Learning from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are drawing together various stakeholders to be part of an oversight structure to ensure all funds disbursed to respond to this disaster are properly accounted for and that the state receives value for money,” he said.

Pearson has welcomed the president’s precautionary measures against corruption, noting that “it is interesting that the President has channeled some monies through an existing fund – the Solidarity Fund – overseen by the private sector as one means of avoiding corruption.”

Even with the promised government assistance, private charity still has a role to play in helping those affected by the disaster.

Pearson told Crux that the Catholic Church has “provided basic necessities – through the Caritas structures – and civil society has acted very promptly in meeting material needs.”

But he warns that relief is going to take a long time.

“Even with the best will in the world, much of what needs to be restored and healed and rebuilt cannot be done materially or financially. It needs a long healing process, a balm to deal with the trauma. This is an area where the churches will have to step up and provide psycho-social pastoral support,” he told Crux.