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Story Publication logo May 16, 2024

Coastal Communities on the Frontline of the Climate Crisis — Kosi Bay, Northern KwaZulu-Natal

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Scientists say the seismic surveys used to locate oil and gas are harmful to marine life.

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Sizwe Thembe spears fish for an elder woman who has kraals close to his own. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa, 2024.

This series of photo essays explores the relationships between the people living in coastal communities and the ocean, in each of South Africa’s coastal provinces.

Daily Maverick will publish a series of four photo essays this week. This is part four.

Read Part 1: Coastal communities on the frontline of the climate crisis — Dwesa-Cwebe in Hobeni, Eastern Cape

Read Part 2: Coastal communities on the frontline of the climate crisis — Hondeklip Bay, Northern Cape

Read Part 3: Coastal Communities on the frontline of the climate crisis — Struisbaai


Near the border with Mozambique, the warm waters of the South Indian Ocean ebb and flow through the mouth of the Kosi Bay estuary and lake system. On March 15, the sky was clear and the wind was still. Near the river mouth at low tide, Joseph Mathenjwa was tending to his utshwayelo (fish kraal), which was damaged by the moderate tropical storm named Filipo, as it passed through northern KwaZulu-Natal back into the Indian Ocean after creating considerable damage in parts of Mozambique. 

Next to his fish kraal, on an exposed patch of sand with a small tree growing out of it, another fish kraal lay rolled up. At the mouth itself, a sandy hill that once stood on the opposite shore was completely washed away. Mathenjwa (57) says he has never seen so much damage caused in the space of 24 hours.

The practice of using fish kraals dates back hundreds of years. Today, many people living in Kosi Bay depend on fish kraals for their livelihood. Fish that are trapped inside the fish kraals are speared by the owner and then taken home to store or eat, or are sold to people in the community. They also represent a sense of cultural heritage and historical claim to the land and lakes.


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Filipo was a moderate tropical storm and not something out of the ordinary. According to Professor Jennifer Fitchett of the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, as the temperature of the South Indian Ocean rises, the number of storms is decreasing, but the number of storms that are reaching higher intensities is growing, and those storms are moving south. 

In her research article Recent emergence of CAT5 tropical cyclones in the South Indian Ocean, Fitchett says: “Although the South African coastline is currently protected from tropical cyclones by Madagascar, this southward trajectory has the potential to heighten the proportion of storms tracking south of this island nation, which currently takes the brunt of tropical cyclones in the South Indian Ocean.” 

The risk of northern KwaZulu-Natal becoming vulnerable to the effects of tropical cyclones is growing. While it’s impossible to predict the tracks that storms will take in the future (they may not always pass directly through Kosi Bay), severe storms could pose an existential risk to the people who depend on the fish kraals for their livelihoods. 


March 14, 2024: The fish kraals that Sizwe Thembe, a father of three, built are his only source of income. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 14, 2024: Sizwe Thembe caught three large mullet on the day after tropical storm Filipo passed through Kosi Bay. He says the large fish are uncommon at that time of year and it was probably the storm that had brought them from the second lake. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 14, 2024: Maintaining fish kraals is hard work. Specific types of wood need to be collected in the forest. Sizwe Thembe plugs gaps in his fish kraal after a long morning of spearing fish. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 15, 2024: Joseph Mathenjwa says he has seen similar damage in the past, but never in the space of 24 hours. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 16, 2024: Ndlala Alfred Mthembo is an elder in the Kosi Bay community. He used to practice spear fishing at the Kosi Bay mouth when he was younger. Wearing goggles and using a spear similar to Sizwe Thembe's, he would hunt for fish. "It was a good activity … I miss it," he says. When he got too old for underwater spear fishing, he built fish kraals. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 16, 2024: At the age of 75, Ndlala Alfred Mthembo says he is too old to tend to fish kraals, and has passed his kraals on to younger relatives. In this photograph, he crosses the Kosi Bay mouth to inspect the beach where a large sand dune had stood two days before, only to be washed away by the storm. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 15, 2024: The practice of building fish kraals has been around for seven centuries. Wooden stumps are driven into the ground with fine brush between them to act as walls that are porous enough for juvenile fish to pass through, but dense enough to stop larger fish. The walls are built adjacent to channels that the fish would use when swimming out with the tide. Fish that end up swimming against the walls, where the boy is walking, are corralled to a point where the easiest path forward is into the kraal from which they cannot escape. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 15, 2024: For Sthembiso Biyela, fish kraals are as much a part of his identity as they are a source of livelihood. He works at the border with Mozambique now, but says: "[When I grew up] there was no money. We survived through building fish kraals and selling fish to the community." Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 15, 2024: "When I am gone, this young man has to carry on. These are the only things that show that there were people here before," says Sthembiso Biyela, who is starting to teach his son how to look after the fish kraals. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

March 16, 2024: A utshwayelo, also known as fish kraal, seen from a lookout point adjacent to the Kosi Bay lake system. For many families, fish kraals are the only source of income. For people like Sthembiso Biyela, they are also a sense of identity and belonging. "Although the South African coastline is currently protected from tropical cyclones by Madagascar, this southward trajectory has the potential to heighten the proportion of storms tracking south of this island nation, which currently takes the brunt of tropical cyclones in the South Indian Ocean," Professor Jennifer Fitchett says in her paper Recent emergence of CAT5 tropical cyclones in the South Indian Ocean. The consequences of ocean warming, accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels, for the ecosystems that the Kosi Bay fish kraals rely on could be dire, as well as for the people who rely on them. Image by Barry Christianson. South Africa.

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