Overnight, Mozambique’s second-largest city disappeared. All the lights in Beira went off. Its buildings vanished under six metres of water. Its roads were washed away, its bridges were torn from their foundations, and its people — well, still no one knows how many of its people survived.
They huddled together on the roofs of three-storey buildings as the floodwater lapped at their feet; or, trapped in the branches of the tallest trees, they braced against gale-force winds and waited for a rescue that, for many, never came.
This was no ordinary natural disaster. Mozambique has weathered more than its fair share of floods over the years. Cyclone Idai was more powerful than anything that has come before. It was “a disaster of great proportions”, said President Filipe Nyusi, who flew over Beira in a helicopter and saw bodies floating in water where there used to be villages. More than 90% of the city of 500 000 people was destroyed, said the Red Cross. The United Nations called it “possibly the worst-ever weather-related disaster to hit the southern hemisphere”.
What’s left of Beira is now cut off from the rest of Mozambique. Humanitarian agencies are only able to bring in supplies by air or by boat. National Road number 6, the
one major road linking the city to the rest of the country, has been destroyed. Beira is now an “island in the ocean”, according to media reports.
Cyclone Idai hit Beira late on March 13, but it did not stop there. It barrelled inland, sweeping through Sofala province and then across the border into Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani district. As it moved further from the sea, it weakened, but even then it was strong enough to burst riverbanks, sweep away bridges and flood towns and villages.
Although Malawi was not struck directly, the cyclone caused heavy rains.
So far, according to official tallies, more than 200 people have died in Mozambique, 56 are dead in Malawi and 98 in Zimbabwe. In total, an estimated 2.6-million people could be affected, with hundreds of thousands made homeless.
All of those numbers are expected to rise as more details emerge over the coming days, especially because the flooding may not be over — the heavy rains mean that
some dams, such as Marowanyati Dam in Zimbabwe, are at risk of overflowing.
The worst is still to come. Before people even begin to rebuild their lives, they will have to cope with the secondary effects of the cyclone, which are likely to be even more devastating than the cyclone itself.
The most immediate threat is the lack of clean food and water. This is one of the poorest regions in the world, and has one of its most
vulnerable populations. It’s an area where people eat what they can grow. Their crops have been drowned, just weeks away from harvest time, and food stores are spoiled. Where will food come from now? And how long will it be before the land recovers sufficiently to plant new crops?
In Zimbabwe, poor rainfall earlier this year meant that, prior to the cyclone, 5.3-million people were already in need of food aid. The government was not sure where that food aid was going to come from. That shortage now risks turning into a famine, similar to the one that followed the floods in Mozambique in 2000.
In a brutal irony, survivors of Cyclone Idai must also be careful about what they drink. Much of the water that surrounds them now will be unfit for human consumption. To make things worse, flooding is likely to have contaminated boreholes too.
In Mozambique alone, the cyclone destroyed at least 30 health centres. Until humanitarian agencies can get to the area in force — assuming they receive the funding necessary to do so — survivors will have no support as they confront the epidemics that inevitably accompany flooding, including cholera and malaria.
It is impossible to state definitively that climate change caused Cyclone Idai — that’s just not how science works. But this hasn’t stopped Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper from proclaiming: “For Doubting Thomases, Tropical Cyclone Idai brings vital lessons that climate change is now with us … the consequences of climate change are inevitable, and we are experiencing them through cyclones like Cyclone Idai.”
Where the science is clear is that a hotter world means more damaging cyclones. Because they draw their energy from the oceans, the hotter the oceans become, the more powerful the cyclones will be. Hotter oceans — and melting ice caps — also mean ocean levels rise. Put together, this means cyclones spin faster, do more damage and have more energy as they batter into the interior. Mozambique is particularly vulnerable because of the already warm Indian Ocean and its long coastline.
Idai was definitely worse because of these conditions. With the world getting hotter, and governments largely failing to take climate change seriously, devastating events such as Cyclone Idai will become the new normal.
Our leaders must shoulder much of the blame.
Mozambique’s government, having received news of a vast gas find off its northern coast several years ago, proceeded to blow billions of dollars on corrupt deals instead of shoring up its defences. The “New Zimbabwe” has ruined its economy so badly that even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have refused to come to its aid, leaving the government without the funds to handle any kind of crisis.
A dynasty of Mutharika presidencies in Malawi has failed to deliver meaningful development of the type that might protect its people against these types of environmental threat.
In South Africa, the superpower of the region, the rot is so deep that the failure of a few Mozambican power lines was enough to tip the country into rotational power outages. How will we possibly cope if the next extreme weather event hits closer to home? The answer is depressingly simple. Unless our priorities change — fast — we won’t.