Habitable Air

Researching Environmental Injustice and Climate Inaction in Durban, South Africa

Urban inequality is a significant challenge that is prevalent in many parts of the world, leading to disparities in access to resources, services, education, and economic opportunities. Fenceline and frontline communities (communities located near industrial activity) are particularly vulnerable to these disparities due to their proximity to industrial activity, which exposes them to various environmental hazards and significant health risks.


Spatial planning plays a crucial role in the production of urban inequality by affecting health and access to resources and services. Based on our research under the Habitable Air Project, we are conducting an ethnographic study to examine the lived experiences of communities residing near industrial facilities. Our objective is to critically analyse the impact of urban planning on the health and well-being of these communities.


The South Durban community in South Africa is currently grappling with a range of environmental challenges linked to the presence of oil refineries, petrochemical, and chemical industries in the region. The industrial activities in South Durban have led to air pollution levels that are among the highest recorded in South Africa. As a result, the vulnerable residents of the area are exposed to various health risks, including asthma, cancer, and leukaemia due to the cumulative ambient SO² (sulphur dioxide) concentrations. Additionally, South Durban is facing the adverse impacts of climate change, including increased frequency of flooding and storms, which further compounds the community’s vulnerability.


The recent severe flooding and landslides in the region caused by heavy rainfall, which resulted in the death of 448 people, displaced over 40,000 people, and destroyed over 12,000 houses, highlight the vulnerability of communities to climate change. The World Weather Attribution service finds that climate change doubled the likelihood of the event, and rainfall over the two-day period was 4-8% more intense than it would have been without climate change. The role of structural inequality in vulnerability to flooding is also evident, as forced relocation moved marginalised groups of people onto land that was more prone to flooding.


Our project recognises the urgency of exploring environmental issues in South Durban and working with communities to highlight their perspectives and concerns. Stay updated on our work in field by following us on social media: