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Climate frontline: 'sink or swim' in Cape Town as inequalities persist

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RODGER BOSCH/AFP or licensors


A city built on, and around the sea.

With 240 km of coastline, Cape Town in South Africa is the perfect example of a metropolis at the frontline of the climate crisis.

A new unpublished United Nations report warns that cities built along coastlines and deltas face the risk of being wiped out, along with hundreds of millions of their populations, as climate change pushes sea levels to surge.

These cities are on the "frontline", the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report says.

Rising seas will likely spark mass migration and eventually force whole cities to be abandoned to the flood.

“We live our lives knowing we're gonna die but I don't think we often think of our cities in those terms and most of our coastal cities are mortal. A lot of them will end by flood in the long run, and by 2050, that may be much more widely appreciated (…), said Ben Strauss, the chief scientist at Climate central.

To beat the rising ocean levels the city installed sandbags on one of its beaches.

Cape Town is an "extensive adapter", according to the IPCC, with flood protection infrastructure, as well as early warning systems in place.

But almost 100,000 households are exposed to flooding in a city riven by deep poverty and the legacy of apartheid. 

You don't even need to wait for the flood of the century to picture the result. In the township of Khayelitsha, only a few millimetres of rain cause sewers to overflow, and wash sewerage down the road. Here, poverty and climate change combine to make life even harder.

The apartheid government built Khayelitsha in the 1980s as a way of keeping Cape Town’s black population out of the city. Out of sight, out of mind.

After nearly 30 years of democracy, it’s one of the country's biggest townships, and one of the fastest-growing.

"This water is filled with faeces, human faeces," said Ndithini Thyidom, the chairman of the Kayelitsha Development Forum. 

"And this is a daily occurence, the slightest of rains you find overwhelms the drainage system that then leads to this water going out like this," he said. 

New shacks are built every year, including here in the wetlands. 

In Masiphumelele, an informal settlement in the Cape Peninsula, Nokuthula Ramba shows the house that she built days earlier.

"This is a wetland, you see, but I don’t have another place where I can build. You see?," Ramba asks pointing to her shack made out of scrap metal. 

The city’s current prevention plan is to destroy newly built homes before anyone moves in. This demolition squad is tearing down unoccupied shacks, like the one that Nokuthula built.

As the demolition team moves on to the next home, she will gather up the torn down building materials, and start over.

Not everyone is equally affected by flooding in this part of town.

A few hundred meters away from Masiphumelele, opulent homes overlook Lake Michelle.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, but it will have to protect its most vulnerable, because the climate crisis is on their doorstep.