• Buhle Mhlongo

The Impact of Natural Disasters in Education: Reflecting on the KwaZulu-Natal Floods

On 11 April 2022 at midnight, Delane Memela was awakened by the sound of heavy rainfall. When he went outside, he noticed that the water level around his home was very low. The heavy rainfall was followed by a sudden crack sound of trees falling. Delane noticed that there were cars shifting from where they were parked and houses coming towards him. A few minutes later, Delane heard people screaming for help [1]. What Delane saw was the beginning of the most devastating time for the residents of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Between 11 April and 21 March 2022, KZN, a province on the east coast of South Africa was affected by floods which were an excess of 400 mm of rainfall over 24 hours. Approximately 40,000 buildings and structures were damaged, including 630 schools, affecting 320,000 learners [2].

Natural disasters of any kind have very real and long-lasting effects on education, not only from an access point of view but also from a learning outcomes perspective. Especially when considering factors such as the psycho-social impact on students, teachers and parents. During the KZN floods, a majority of learners, teachers and parents were affected psychologically as a result of displacements and the death of loved ones.

The extensive damage to infrastructure and paper-based teaching and learning materials (textbooks, exercise workbooks, etc.) has direct implications on access to education, especially for schools that still rely heavily on traditional methods of teaching and learning. The damage in infrastructure extends to electricity and network infrastructure, which limits access to the internet and e-Learning resources. According to an article by Onigbinde, “education as a paramount factor of economic development, suffers from uncontrollable effects of increasing events from storms to floods, and earthquakes to wildfires [3]. We have seen evidence of natural disasters from around the world and their impact on education, for example, the 2010 floods that destroyed over 11,000 schools in Pakistan, to the most recent wildfires in Afghanistan just last month, which significantly impacted the psychosocial well-being of teachers and learners.

The KZN floods highlight some of the real and pressing challenges in education systems across the continent, while also pointing out opportunities for human-centred innovation where the technology is a tool and not necessarily the solution. Damages to internet and power infrastructures point out that EdTech needs to be designed in a way that it doesn’t rely heavily on access to internet connectivity or electricity. The KZN floods, among other devastating natural disasters, have shown that there is an urgent need for EdTech entrepreneurs to innovate solutions that are user-friendly and accessible to remote areas during periods such as these.

There is an opportunity for low-tech EdTech solutions to be rolled out in the districts affected by the floods in KZN to allow equal access to quality education for all. We have seen tools like Green Shoots Maths Curriculum Online being implemented successfully in the most remote schools in the Western Cape and Northern Cape; Ubongo’s and Akili Kids’ localized and multi-platform educational content in Tanzania and Kenya, respectively, and Syafunda’s zero-rated online platform giving learners access to a vast library of digital learning content as well video tutorials that are accessible offline and on feature phones.

Countries globally have turned to EdTech to support teachers and learners through remote learning during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a disaster that affected many on a global scale. Furthermore, the World Bank noted that countries like Sierra Leone and Pakistan have relied on the “power and reach of the good old ‘analogue’ technology tools like education TV and education radio” to support continued access to education in the midst of disasters [4].

According to the World Bank, low-tech solutions can be “engaging, they have proven to be impactful and most of all, can be a lot of fun for students of all ages ranging from early childhood to adult education.” Their usefulness as mass broadcast education tools makes them particularly appealing to reach students remotely either during a pandemic, emergencies in education, or for distance learning.

At a systemic level, there is still a long way to go in terms of moving away from primarily paper-based and traditional ways of teaching and learning across the education sector and we are reminded by the KZN floods and other natural disasters of the work that still needs to be done. Furthermore, EdTech needs to take a more prominent feature in national and regional responses to disruptions of any kind to education; providing low-tech solutions that can be easily implemented at scale. It is also worth noting that there is a need to build evidence on measuring effective learning through low-tech solutions -- something innovators should be conscious of while developing and validating their EdTech products.


  1. O’Regan, V. & Ngcuka, O. 2022. Displaced KZN flood victims relive the horror of being driven from their homes forever. Daily Maverick. 16 May. Available: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-05-16-i-then-heard-people-screaming-kzn-flood-victims-relive-the-horror/ [2022, June 1].

  2. Bhengu, X. & Mutele, G. 2022. The death toll reaches 395 in Kwazulu-Natal’s devastating floods. Eyewitness News. Available: https://ewn.co.za/2022/04/15/death-toll-reaches-395-in-kwazulu-natal-s-devastating-floods [2022, May 17].

  3. Onigbinde, L. 2018. The impact of natural disasters on educational attainment: Cross-country evidence from macro data. MA Thesis. University of San Francisco. Available: file:///Users/buhle/Downloads/TheImpactsofNaturalDisastersonEducationalAttainment_Cross.pdf [2022, June 1].

  4. Martinez, M., Barron, M., Zacharia,S. 2021. How can countries implement low-tech remote learning? Using the experiences from Edu Radio and Edu TV in Sierra Leone and Pakistan to develop knowledge packs. World Bank Blogs. 18 May. Available: https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/how-can-countries-implement-low-tech-remote-learning-using-experiences-edu-radio-and-edu

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