What is now called Durban was once a series of interconnected wetlands that drained into a large natural bay, named the ‘Bay of Natal’ by Portugese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1497. Of cause, the local history goes back well before then, with archaeological evidence suggesting that people have occupied the land for over 100,000 years. It is often called ‘eThekwini’, derived from the Zulu word for ‘bay’. The modern history of Durban began in 1824 when a party of 25 men under British command arrived from the Bay of Natal to set up a colony.

Since then, the port has been at the centre of Durban’s economy, with it now being the largest and busiest port in Africa. The mangroves swamps have been completely in-filled, making land for quays and storage, rivers canalized and diverted, and the bay shrinking to a third of its original size. Apart from a flat CBD and immediate area surrounding the port, Durban is very hilly, with western suburbs reaching an altitude of around 850m. The city now has a population of around 3.5 million, with a demography of 71 per cent African, 19 per cent Indian (the largest Indian community in Africa), 8 per cent white and 2 per cent coloured.

Durban port area

Durban port area

Durban is South Africa’s poorest metropolitan area, with a 2009 survey indicating that 41.8 per cent of residents experienced poverty. This should be put into the context of the nation as a whole, which has rampant inequality; according to the World Bank, South Africa had a GINI coefficient of 65.0 in 2011, the highest in the world out of the countries surveyed that year. The city also has an intractable problem with unemployment, with, in 2012 only 14.9 per cent having permanent employment, and estimates of unemployment varying from 23 and 43 per cent.


Durban has a humid subtropical climate, with aspects of a tropical wet and dry climate. It has hot, humid summers, with average high/lows of 27.8/21.1°C in January; and warm, dry and sunny winters, with 22.6/10.5°C in July. The city receives around 1,000mm of rain a year which falls between November and mid-April. Reprieve from the humid heat often takes the forms of an afternoon or evening thunderstorm, with the possibility of tropical storms and cyclones during the season.

Climate Adaptation

According to a report on urban environemental challenges and climate action in Durban, the city is caught ‘in a “perfect storm” of population growth, escalating adaptation needs and substantial development deficits created by a shortage of human and financial resources, increasing levels of informality, poor governance, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, poverty and growing inequality’. The city’s 2014 Climate Change Strategy predicted an ‘average annual temperature increase is expected to be between 1.5°C and 2.5°C by 2065, and increase between 3⁰C and 5⁰C by 2100’, with a potential ‘increase in aggregated rainfall by 2065 with an increase of up to 500 mm by 2100’. Up against such challenges, many champion Community Ecosystem-Based Adaptation (CEBA). This approach acknowledges that communities are fundamentally embedded within ecosystems and that social and climate justice must be address simultaneously. The Durban CEBA Initiative

“…involves impoverished and vulnerable communities restoring their natural ecosystems, creating cleaner and greener neighbourhoods less dependent on costly utilities and services, and so participating in and benefitting from the development of a new sector of the green economy in Durban. Through this important work, ecosystem services are enhanced, resulting in increased adaptive capacity to climate change, as well as mitigation of carbon emissions through natural sequestration processes. CEBA therefore provides a mechanism to simultaneously address the issues of climate change adaptation and mitigation, restoration of ecosystems and promotion of the green economy”.

Buffelsdraai Landfill Community Reforestation Project

Buffelsdraai Landfill Community Reforestation Project

An example of this can be see in the ‘Buffelsdraai Landfill Site Community Reforestation Project’. This project was initially launched as part of a carbon offset program for Durban’s hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but then developed into a climate change strategy. As of 2013, over half a million indigenous trees have been planted, as part of this project which also improves local water security, enhances biodiversity, reduces flood risk, combats poverty, and protects local residents from direct contact with the landfill. This CEBA project has a number of  ‘Good Practice Principles’, as outlined by (see also this video of the reforestation project).

A comprehensive and critical appraisal of the wider climate situation in Durban can be found in the 2011 book Durban’s Climate Gamble. Written in the lead up to the COP17 negotiations, which were held in the city, the book looks at Durban’s legacy of apartheid, its political history, socio-economic battles, environmental conflicts and the reinvention of the city’s vibrant tradition of social protests. This tradition now includes the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, which claims to contribute to ‘the struggle against Environmental Racism for Environmental Justice and Environmental Health’. The city is also the stronghold of the vibrant shack-dwellers movement called Abahlali BaseMjondolo, which emerged from post-apartheid South Africa as a response to the continued marginalisation of the poor and dispossessed who, despite promises to the contrary, continue to live in conditions of abject poverty. This grass-roots movement has been active in promoting social justice and articulate in its criticism of climate policy failures.


Cllr James Nxumalo

The Mayor

Born on a farm in New Hanover, James Nxumalo was lucky to attend school while his family struggled to support themselves. While at school Nxumalo became interested in politics, getting involved with the United Democratic Front in the 1980s, and then the African National Council’s Youth League in the 1990s as well as being a provincial chairman for the South African Communist Party. He was elected mayor in 2011 on a social justice and anticorruption platform, promising to deliver basic services with broad public participation. Since taking office, Nxumalo has emerged as a champion of climate change adaptation, being elected to ICLEI’s Regional Executive Committee for Africa, where he holds portfolios such as ‘Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction’, and ‘Resilience, Climate Adaptation’. He is also the Chair of the South African Local Government Association Climate Change Champions Committee, and was instrumental in the forging of the Durban Adaptation Charter.  

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