Message from NSTF Executive Director    

Idai – a cruel and costly lesson

About three weeks since cyclone Idai turned a country upside-down and wreaked havoc in two others, rescue missions continue. The humanitarian crisis has worsened, while many people are still unaccounted for.

Watching and reading the news from the comfort of the dry Highveld, I wonder –

  • *   Couldn’t the cyclone and its intensity have been predicted?
  • *   What has been done since cyclone Eline in 2000 to prepare Mozambique for this extreme weather event?
  • *   What emergency measures were in place?
  • *   What assistance is rendered from other countries?
  • *   Is the cyclone the result of (anthropogenic) climate change?
  • *   What now? What do we – as a global humanity – do to prevent or mitigate such disasters?


About the cyclone:

Wikipedia says: “Idai is the second-deadliest tropical cyclone recorded in the South-West Indian Ocean basin, behind only the 1892 Mauritius cyclone. In the Southern Hemisphere, it currently ranks as the third-deadliest tropical cyclone on record, behind the aforementioned 1892 Mauritius cyclone and Cyclone Flores in 1973.” [1] [2]

Idai killed more than 900 people (as far as I can gather) – News reports mention 534 in Mozambique, 289 in Zimbabwe, about 70 in Malawi, and one in Madagascar. An estimated three million other lives have been severely impacted. So Idai may not (yet) be the deadliest cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere, but it has had the most devastating impact – most certainly in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It all but destroyed the city of Beira and flooded an extensive area over thousands of kilometres, leaving crowds of survivors stranded or fleeing, and ultimately homeless.

The predictable cholera outbreak happened soon afterwards. By 31 March there were more than 500 confirmed cases, and the first fatality had happened in Mozambique. Epidemics are expected to arise and spread fast due to the conditions in which people now find themselves.

Dr Jennifer Fitchett, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at Wits University, wrote an article for The Conversation, which was republished in Biznews. In it she points out that the cyclone was formed and lingered in the Mozambique Channel at tropical cyclone intensity for six days before it hit the coastline of the continent on 14-15 March. Mozambique is no stranger to tropical storms. It has had nine tropical cyclones before Idai, and tropical storms average 1.1 per year. The most severe cyclone before Idai was cyclone Eline in 2000, which killed about 250 people, and claimed 1000 victims of the floods that followed. An estimated 300 000 people were displaced.

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) says that famine is expected to follow the devastation of the cyclone. Before Idai, Mozambique already had the worst malnutrition in the world among its children. The cyclone hit at the end of the growing season, and destroyed 711 000 hectares of crops. Farmers are now unable to buy new seeds.

Wells are contaminated and latrines are filled with mud. Oral vaccines, food and water have been flown into the country but until they are distributed and administered, many people will still have to eat contaminated food, drink dangerous water and become ill. About 150 000 people are living in displacement sites in Mozambique.


Monitoring of the weather

The weather was being monitored by the Météo-France office on Réunion (MFR) on 1 March, when the storm was forming in the Mozambique Channel and moving towards Mozambique. On 4 March, the MFR stated that Tropical Depression 11 had formed off the east coast.[3] On 8 March the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) issued a tropical cyclone formation alert (TCFA). They noted a consolidating low-level circulation centre. The system was in a favourable environment for the formation of a cyclone. Sea surface temperatures were 30° to 31°C.[4] On 9 March, the JTWC issued its first warning and classified the system as Tropical Cyclone 18S.[5]

It was thus known about five days ahead of time that disaster was about to strike.

On 9-10 March the tropical cyclone was dubbed ‘Idai’, or ‘Moderate Tropical Storm Idai’ to be precise. It then intensified and became ‘an intense tropical cyclone’ with winds of 175 km/h on 11 March. To put this into perspective, it is comparable to a speeding car and the damage it can cause.

On 14 March the storm reached peak intensity, and on 15 March it hit Beira. By then it had weakened but was still an intense tropical cyclone. It weakened further as it continued to wreak havoc inland and turned back eastwards on 17 March. This relatively ‘weak’ cyclone is what destroyed houses, buildings, and people’s lives and livelihoods.

Disaster preparation

Jack Goodman and Christopher Giles wrote an article for BBC Reality Check, called Cyclone Idai: How prepared was southern Africa? which was published on 24 March.

They note that the budget for disaster management in Mozambique was very small, even while it is well-known that the low-lying coastal areas of central Mozambique are very vulnerable to tropical storms.

The Mozambican government had received donor support for a disaster fund of $18.3m for 2018 and 2019, as the basis for a contingency plan, specifically for search and rescue within the first 72 hours of a disaster. It is usually expected that funds for reconstruction are raised afterwards, in the case of a major crisis like this.

The meteorological office of Mozambique, Inam, issued weather alerts as the storm was developing. On 11 March the government raised the alert to the highest possible level, telling people to evacuate threatened areas. Some people were moved out by boat, but many were not aware of the warnings or did not respond.

A forecasting system for Mozambique was developed with the help of Deltares, a research organisation focusing on coastal regions and river basins.

Safe zones had been established in rural areas for evacuation above the flood plain. This time, however, the flooding was far worse than expected.

Beira had introduced measures to deal with cyclones and flooding. “Preparedness has focused on drainage systems,” says Dinis Juizo, associate professor of hydrology at the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo.  “The level of investment has not been high enough for an event of this scale.”

Much of the population of Beira outside the city centre live in informal housing, which mostly cannot withstand an intense storm. Warnings of flooding are an annual occurrence, so many people in lowland areas did not heed them. No-one expected the kind of impact this cyclone would have.

Linda van Tilburg reported in Biznews on 22 March that the story of the floods is not straight forward. Beira has a “very forward-thinking” mayor, Daviz Simango, who has been working hard to increase the popularity of the port, which gives access to the landlocked countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Simango had planned to mitigate flooding disasters by getting the support of a German firm to build a barrage which is supposed to hold a seven metre flood surge.

Assistance from outside the affected countries

Assistance has been given by the large organisations that are equipped and prepared to handle such crises. These include: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the UNHCR, UNICEF, Gift of the Givers and the World Health Organization (WHO).

In addition, assistance has been ‘flooding’ in from Western countries and their governments, each vying for publicity for the good deeds they are doing.

A Report of the World Health Organization (WHO), published on 2 April 2019,  says that about 900 000 doses of cholera vaccine were delivered to Beira, with vaccination to start on the following day. Apparently other efforts had already been made to control the outbreak of cholera.

The vaccines come from the global emergency stockpile, managed by the International Coordination Group (ICG) on Vaccine Provision, funded by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The ICG implements a rapid consultation process. Decisions are shared with the affected countries within 48 hours.

Mozambique’s request was submitted on 21 March. Vaccine release to Beira was approved by the ICG within 24 hours. Vaccines were shipped directly to Beira to save time. The WHO and its global partners ramped up their efforts to ensure rapid response to disease outbreaks.

At the same time, measures are being taken by UNICEF Mozambique to re-establish water treatment systems. Water purification products are being distributed. Humanitarian teams are raising awareness in communities about the symptoms and prevention of cholera.

Then there are interesting inventions that are being provided from the West. For example:

The British Red Cross team provided their Mass Sanitation Module to help stop the spread of waterborne diseases. The Mass Sanitation Module contains everything needed by the Red Cross team to set up a field office and sanitation centre to safely dispose of human waste. Fifty flatpack latrines as well as moulds for concrete to produce various ‘squat plates’ onsite. Three truckloads of equipment and materials were flown to Beira. See the UK Red Cross blog.

One wonders what innovations local Mozambicans and Zimbabweans came up with to deal with their situations. Or indeed, what was available in southern Africa that could have made a difference, were it not for a shortage of funds.

Is the cyclone the result of (anthropogenic) climate change?

Prof Bob Scholes of Wits University, speaking at an NSTF discussion event on the Evidence for Climate Change (November 2017), said that it is difficult to link severe weather events directly to climate change, as the changes happening globally are of a complex nature. What is certain however, is that temperatures everywhere are rising, and this potentially has severe impacts on weather systems. All events are also becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Jennifer Fitchett, in an  article for The Conversation, addresses concerns about the impact of climate change on cyclones. “Research has shown that changes to the world’s temperature, as well as ocean warming, are responsible for an increase in the severity of tropical cyclones. This has recently been researched for the South Indian Ocean.” The region where the temperatures are conducive to tropical cyclone formation is expanding. Temperatures in the tropical regions are also becoming warm enough for cyclone intensification. Category 5 tropical cyclones, experienced in the North Atlantic for almost a century, started to occur in the South Indian Ocean since 1994, and have been occurring increasingly frequently since then. Climate change has also been found to increase the expanse of the storms within any given intensity.

There is much information on each particular storm, because they are tracked by several regional climatological organisations. The detailed data from these are synthesised by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association. Any storm can then be analysed in terms of various indicators, and trends are monitored over time.

Idai “provides a grim prospect of the future of tropical cyclones in a region under continued threat from climate change. Effective adaptation to minimise storm damage is essential in preparing the region for an increase in the severity of these storms. Disaster risk management plans are also very important to minimise the loss of life.”

An article on BBC online also notes that climate change affects other factors that contribute to making the impact of the storms worse.

“There is absolutely no doubt that when there is a tropical cyclone like this, then because of climate change the rainfall intensities are higher,” said Dr Friederike Otto from the University of Oxford. During the floods in Mozambique in 2000, she was one of the many journalists covering news of the disaster. There was a huge international response and the Royal Air Force sent six helicopters to rescue survivors. Little thought was given to rebuilding homes and infrastructure with new designs to  withstand future storms.

“Development experts have long argued that reconstruction should enshrine the principle of resilience, with roads raised high enough to stay dry in floods and houses made robust enough to resist cyclone-strength winds.“

“North America is now experiencing Category 5 cyclones quite regularly, and they don’t experience the level of damage that Mozambique is seeing,” said Dr Fitchett. “When a storm like this comes along, the potential for devastation is infinitely higher. A city like Beira is at much higher risk, because not only have you many more people there, it’s also so much more difficult for them to get out.”

What will be done in future to prevent such crises?

Another article in The ConversationCyclone Idai: rich countries are to blame for disasters like this – here’s how they can make amends (22 March):

The author confirms that “It is always tricky to establish a direct causal link, but thanks to the evidence provided by a number of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including this most recent one from October 2018, we know that climate change is bound to increase the intensity and frequency of storms like Idai.”

Not only should we try to curb further rises in global temperatures, but should also prepare people who are or will become victims of events similar to this cyclone. The approach to international development of underdeveloped countries should be rethought entirely.

Poverty means that the impact of disasters is more devastating than for well-off countries and communities. Houses cannot resist any force flung against them at all. Storm barriers may be weaker, emergency services poorly resourced, and poor health services make it more difficult to fight outbreaks of disease, etc.

The example of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in the US is cited. Many people didn’t have cars in New Orleans, so when Katrina struck in 2005, the area could not easily be evacuated.

26 billionaires own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. The currently enormous inequalities will only worsen if not addressed.  More frequent and intense climate disasters will exacerbate those inequalities.

“In all this inequality, the world’s wealthiest countries are heavily culpable. It stems from a complex economic system that disadvantages the Global South – not to mention the centuries-long experience of colonialism, the effects of which have hampered human development until this day.”

Countries like Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe contribute only a small fraction of the emissions that are contributing to climate change.

Donor countries should identify the most vulnerable people both before and after a disaster, and ensure they are first to receive the required support. They should write off national debt of vulnerable countries, and at least give them preferential trade deals so that they are able to adapt to climate change themselves. They should be offering support to poorer countries with “everything from building flood defences to supporting social services to transferring technology”.

All of the above requires a rethinking of development assistance and humanitarian aid. Climate justice is gaining traction as a discipline and will be the subject of a World Forum taking place in Glasgow in June. The House of Commons International Development Committee is reviewing the aid budget and considering an approach built around climate justice.

The UK newspaper The Telegraph carried an article called Cyclone Idai and climate change: The key questions. The Reporting team consisted of André Catueira, Luís Fonseca and Márcio Resende in Beira, Adrian Blomfield in Nairobi, Peta Thornycroft in Johannesburg, and the Lusa news agency (Portugal and Mozambique).

“Cyclone Idai is a clear demonstration of the exposure and vulnerability of many low-lying cities and towns to sea-level rise as the impact of climate change continues to influence and disrupt normal weather patterns,” said Mami Mizutori, the UN’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Rebuilding the vast areas where Idai inflicted damage should be done with climate change in mind and prepare those areas for future extreme storms and flooding. This was not done after cyclone Eline 19 years ago.

However, the affected countries do not have a budget for “future-proofing”, as they have already had to deal with droughts and floods and failed crops, among other problems.

At the Paris climate summit in 2015, then-prime minister of Mozambique, Carlos Agostinho do Rosario, said: “These weather phenomena affect the government’s efforts to meet national priorities, especially food security, that are critical to poverty reduction.”

The rich nations pledged in Paris 2015 to ramp up aid to $100 billion per year in restorative climate funding to poorer nations by 2020. However, less than 10 per cent of this funding has been secured.

To conclude, what has Idai taught humanity?

  • *   Despite the best efforts of development aid, disaster relief, early warning systems, and Beira’s mayor, Idai        took everyone by surprise, taking lives and livelihoods – not only in Mozambique, but in landlocked                  Zimbabwe.
  • *   Given the crucial role of international disaster relief bodies, these should be strengthened and their incomesecured.
  • *   Some poor countries are located where they might experience more of the negative effects of climate change, and the poor in general lack the means to prepare themselves for disasters.
  • *   Development aid therefore has to be rethought.
  • *  We should all be prepared for weather related disasters – and for the escalation of intensity and damage  caused by such disasters. These are now ‘predictable’, not exactly when they will happen, but that they will.
  • *   Public awareness should be raised, of such dangers and the need to create emergency systems well in advance of disasters.
  • Countries that are severely affected by such disasters should be rebuilt in a way that will make them more resistant and resilient.
  • *   The 2015 Paris climate summit pledge should be implemented as soon as possible.
  • *   Innovation and social entrepreneurship make a significant difference, and should be supported.
  • *   We are all part of global humanity. We should think of the world in its entirety and realise that what is         being done in one part of the world has an effect on other parts, that what was done in a past era continues     to have multiple effects around the world.

The opinions expressed above are those of the Executive Director, Jansie Niehaus, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Executive Committee or members of the NSTF.

[1] Masters, Jeff. “Africa’s Hurricane Katrina: Tropical Cyclone Idai Causes an Extreme Catastrophe”. Weather Underground. Retrieved 23 March 2019. [Footnote by Wikipedia]

[2] Funes, Yessenia. “Cyclone Idai Poised to Become Southern Hemisphere’s Deadliest Tropical Storm, With More Than 1,000 Feared Dead”. Earther. Retrieved 20 March 2019. [Footnote by Wikipedia]