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In Cyclone Idai's wake

cyclone idai makes landfall in beira, mozambique

Cyclone Idai over Mozambique as captured on 15 March. Copyright: 2019 EUMETSAT".

JOHANNESBURG - While tropical storm Idai that wreaked havoc across Southern Africa has dissipated, the region must now try to deal with the aftermath that the stage-3 cyclone left in its wake. Long-term risks of power outages, lack of access to critical services, waterborne and airborne diseases and food scarcity in coming months must now take the centre stage as long-term relief plans are put in place. In the short-term, many citizens of affected regions in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe remain at risk as heavy rains and damaged infrastructure frustrate relief efforts and access to critical services.

In South Africa, the country’s already strained power utility Eskom bumped up rational load shedding from Stage 2 to Stage 4, leaving large parts of the country in the dark for extended periods of time. This, according to Eskom, was necessitated in part by storm damage to a transmission line from Cahora Bassa in Mozambique to South Africa, which lessened the country’s electricity capacity by at least 900MW and worsened the strain on the electrical grid.

Torrential rainfall and widespread flooding claimed 66 lives in Mozambique and resulted in 56 deaths in Malawi in the week leading up to Cyclone Idai’s landfall, leaving more than one million people displaced and scores of others injured. Since making landfall, however, more than 120 have reportedly died, with 62 deaths recorded in Mozambique and 65 deaths in Zimbabwe over the weekend. Authorities say this figure may still rise as search and rescue operations continue.

The category-three cyclone, which made landfall in the Central Mozambican coastal city of Beira on 14 March 2019, displaced tens of thousands of more people with its arrival, damaging homes, roads, bridges and other infrastructure with reported wind speeds of over 200km/h. This according to World Food Programme spokesperson (WFP) Hervé Verhoosel, who addressed the media in Geneva.

Beira is the fourth largest city in Mozambique and holds the Port of Beira. This critical import point serves the interior portion of Mozambique in addition to its landlocked neighbours of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. Damages are expected to impact the transport of imported goods, including fuel, to these countries.

Verhoosel said the World Food Programme had stepped up preparations ahead of the cyclone’s landfall to meet large-scale assistance needs in the areas affected. He said the amount of crops damaged by heavy rains and wind and the long-term effects of this damage on food scarcity in the region was another cause for concern.

“Tropical Cyclone Idai has compounded destructive flooding that already occurred as far inland as Southern Malawi and eastern Zimbabwe,” said Verhoosel, adding that damage was being assessed and that they would prioritise needs, especially among the most vulnerable of those affected. He added that focus would be on remote locations cut off by floodwaters “as soon as conditions allow.”

More than 100 people have been reported missing after Cyclone Idai crossed into Zimbabwe.

While the exact death toll has not been confirmed, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Efforts said more than 120 deaths had been reported in the region as a result of flooding. Verhoosel told the media that while the number of people who had died in the week of the Cyclone’s approach had been confirmed by respective governments, the agency was unable to communicate exact number of lives lost after the cyclone made landfall.

More than 100 people have been reported missing in Zimbabwe as the peripheral effects of the cyclone crossed the country’s eastern border. In the country’s Manicaland province, which borders Mozambique, widespread power cuts and infrastructure damages are being reported. Joshua Sacco, a member of parliament in the Chimanimani district told AFP that some of those who are missing are people who were inside the 25 houses swept away during a mudslide at Ngangu township, and that many of the missing are feared dead.

In a statement on Friday, 15 March, one day after Cyclone Idai made landfall in Beira, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres extended condolences to the families. He said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life, destruction of property and displacement of people due to the heavy rains and flooding caused by Tropical Cyclone Idai.”

“The United Nations expresses its solidarity with the Mozambique authorities and stands ready to work with them as they respond to the humanitarian needs resulting from this natural disaster,” he added.

Satellite images of the region show widespread damage. Malawi’s Chikwana district and Mozambique’s Zambezi and Tete regions have been severely affected by flooding, with more than 168 000 hectares of crops affected - roughly the size of 235 000 soccer fields!

While access to affected areas remains restricted, images on social media show the extent of the damages.

Verhoosel told the media that damage to infrastructure was hindering, or in some areas blocking access to affected areas completely, and that the Zambezi river’s rising water levels would be expected to affect many villages and small cities on its banks, many of which rely on the river for trade and transport.

Ten UN transit centres have been set up in the Zambezi region and another two in the Tete region of Mozambique to provide help for people displaced by the floods. Despite initial needs assessments completed, Verhoosel says crucial follow-up visits have been hampered by destruction from the storm - fallen powerlines, overloaded mobile networks and closed airspace over Mozambique as weather conditions remain turbulent.

The World Food Programme added at least one of its own transport helicopters to a rescue fleet sent by the government of neighbouring South Africa to conduct emergency air operations. South African based humanitarian aid organisation Gift of the Givers has also mobilised resources to assist those in the regions hit hardest, and in a statement said more devastation is to be expected in coming days, as “more than a million people have been displaced, scores have died and thousands of homes have been destroyed beyond repair.”

The 70-member Gift of the Givers relief team includes rescue technicians, aquatic rescue specialists, divers, advanced life support paramedics and doctors, who will make use of the organisation’s 10 powerboats, 14 inflatable rescue boats, 22 off-road vehicles and four jet skis, as well as a small aircraft, to assist communities in need and supplement local and regional search and rescue teams.

According to Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman this mission is the largest water rescue preparation in the organisation’s 26 year history.

The Malawi Red Cross Society has also been busy with fundraising efforts to assist affected communities.

Despite the storm itself subsiding, World Health Organisation spokesperson Christian Lindmeier cautions that residents are not out of danger yet. While drownings are usually the primary initial cause of deaths during times of floods, Lindmeier says other dangers remain. “You also have crush and trauma injuries throughout the flooding. This is typically followed later by waterborne diseases,” he said, adding that a rise in airborne disease like malaria should also be expected.

Damage to healthcare facilities and critical infrastructure further compound the problem, meaning that even those who escaped the storm unscathed could later be affected when access to medical resources are hampered. “Simple scenarios like assistance to pregnant women and deliveries, or assistance to diabetes patients” could also become problematic, he said.

While Cyclone Idai was not as powerful as storms which ravaged the region in 2000 and 2008, experts suggest the damage this time around could be much worse, in part due to an exponential increase in people living in the area. Mozambique’s population has increased by more than two-thirds since 2000, to around 31 million, and the country’s fertility rate of an estimated 5.9 children per woman is one of the highest in the world.

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