Southern Africa is in mourning. More than 1 000 people have perished since the tropical cyclone, Idai, lashed parts of Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe last month. The toll will likely increase, as scores have been missing for weeks and hopes are fading that they are still in the land of the living.
Aid agencies have described the cycle as the worst natural disaster to hit the region in at least two decades. The flash floods and ferocious winds of up to 177 km/h it brought washed away roads and bridges and even caused landslides in some areas. Buildings also bore its brunt. The Mozambique port city of Beira was the hardest hit, with reports suggesting that 90% of its infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged.
An estimated 1.7-million people in Mozambique were in the cyclone’s direct path, while 920 000 were affected in Malawi and the Zimbabwe government reported on March 20 that at least 20 000 homes had been partially damaged in the south-eastern town of Chipinge, while 600 were completely destroyed. All in all, infrastructure worth about $1-billion was damaged, according to the United Nations (UN).
In the wake of the disaster, the UN’s World Food Programme designated Mozambique a Level 3 emergency, placing it on a par with the likes of Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. The agency is mobilising food aid for the 1.7-million affected by the cyclone in the former Portuguese colony, while the UN itself has appealed for $282-million to fund the first three months of the disaster response in the country. It reckons that $55-million will be required thereafter.
For its part, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is considering emergency financial assistance to the country under an IMF Rapid Credit Facility. While it is too early to assess the macroeconomic effects of the cyclone and the reconstruction costs, the Bretton Woods institution estimates that these would be “very significant”. It cut off support to Mozambique in 2016, after the latter had fessed up to hiding $1.4-billion in loans. This triggered a currency collapse and debt default.
Many other good Samaritans have come to the aid of the victims of Cyclone Idai in the three Southern African countries. The European Union disbursed €3-million and the UK chipped in with $29-million, while the African Union contributed $350 000 and countries like Tanzania and Uganda sent food and medical supplies. The South African government and Patrice Motsepe, this country’s first black dollar billionaire, are among them, having contributed R60-million and R15-million respectively to relief efforts in each of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Cyclone Idai was clearly a grim reminder that climate change – the effects of which include extreme weather events – is not an old wives’ tale at all. While the conventional wisdom in scientific circles is that a single weather event cannot be attributable to climate change, this phenomenon, which is also called global warming, is already causing more extreme rainfall and storms, sweltering heatwaves, shrinking harvests and worsening water shortages across the globe. No less a personage than UN secretary- general Antonio Guterres concurred that the cyclone, which he described as “an uncommonly fierce and prolonged storm”, rang yet another alarm bell about climate change. So governments around the world had better take note.
The disaster also exposed the degree of unpreparedness of the Zimbabwe government to deal with catastrophes of this magnitude. The country’s Meteorological Services Department raised the alarm about two weeks before the cyclone hit the southern part of the eastern Manicaland province. It accurately predicted that the cyclone would “generate torrential rains and exceedingly strong winds, resulting in flooding and the destruction of infrastructure along its path”.
One would have expected that the Zimbabwe government, armed with this warning, would evacuate people from the vicious cyclone’s path or call in outside assistance if it felt it was not up to that task. It pursued neither of these options and all that the hapless victims could do when the day of reckoning finally arrived was to pray for divine intervention. Our people deserve better.