The impact of Cyclone Idai – lessons for Africa

Following Cyclone Idai, African governments must strengthen the African Risk Capacity (ARC) and ensure that African states are better prepared to handle natural disasters.

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By Ched Nyamanhindi and Phillip Nyasha Fungurai

Globally, natural disasters remain a threat to peace and security. With an expected increase in natural disasters due to climate change, Africa must brace itself. Piston (2013) postulates that urban and coastal populations are at increased risk of massive casualties, political strife, and local tensions from natural disasters. Busby (2007) argues that climate change is one of the factors increasing the chances of natural disasters and extreme environmental events, aggravating competition for scarce resources.

Southern Africa was hit by a cyclone in March 2019 that affected a huge number of people. There are lessons that Africa can learn from such disasters, including disaster preparedness, physco-social impacts, internal displacement, the reality of climate change and the role of donors, regional blocs, governments and communities of action in natural disasters.

Cyclone Idai is viewed as one of the worst tropical cyclones to affect Africa, especially its southern part. It originated from a tropical depression that formed off the east coast of Mozambique on 4 March 2019. Idai reached the land near Beira at a speed of 195km/h. It was an intense tropical cyclone, which destroyed structures and killed people on its way through Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Infrastructure was wrecked, livelihoods were destroyed, and fauna and flora damaged.

The cyclone killed more than 1,000 people in Mozambique, more than 259 in Zimbabwe, and more than 56 in Malawi, and one in Madagascar. According to a United Nations report, the cyclone has affected more than three million people by destroying infrastructure and displacing people from their homes. The impact of the cyclone has damaged or destroyed more than 951,000 acres of crops; at least 99,317 houses; approximately 2,800 classrooms; and nearly 40 health units in Inhambane, Manica, Sofala, and Zambézia provinces in Mozambique, according to initial estimates by local authorities. An estimated one million people in affected areas were left without electricity due to damaged electrical infrastructure as of March 20.

Psycho-social impact

The effects of Cyclone Idai were fatal in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, leaving psychological scars for the survivors and the communities. The delay and difficulty in rescuing the survivors and finding and burying the dead exacerbated the situation. Bobrowski (2013) states that the psychological consequences of disasters are related to the degree of exposure to hazards and the losses that characterize natural disasters. Disaster impact, compounded by adversities in the aftermath, create new special populations of persons needing medical and psychological support. Some persons exposed to disaster rebound quickly from transient distress reactions. However, others progress to psychopathology, including PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Those who lose loved ones are likely to grapple with complicated grief. The psychological impact of Cyclone Idai is huge, and yet the affected countries lack adequate psycho-social support for the affected victims. African governments must establish well-equipped hospitals and institutions that address the psychological impacts of natural disasters.

Internal displacement of people

Internal displacement is a major impact of natural disasters like Cyclone Idai. According to statistics from the Civil Protection Unit (CPU) of Zimbabwe, 1,838 homes were completely destroyed and a further 193 partially destroyed. As a result, 16,000 people were displaced and are in need of shelter, blankets, utensils and sanitation. In Mozambique and Malawi an estimated 200,000 people were displaced and forced into temporary camps at schools, hotels and churches. Governments have a role in ensuring that human rights concerns are addressed so that Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) receive the protection they require and to which they are entitled.

According to Kalin (2005) much attention has to be devoted to issues of human rights protection that arise from displacement. The areas that need monitoring include access to assistance, discrimination in aid provision, enforced relocation, sexual and gender-based violence, loss of documentation, safe and voluntary return or resettlement, and issues of property restitution. Those internally displaced by Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe are reportedly already experiencing human rights violations, such as partisan distribution of aid and delay in accessing assistance. This is against “institutions” like the Kampala Convention; an African Union treaty that addresses internal displacements due to natural disasters and armed conflicts. Its aim is to safeguard the rights of affected people and to establish the role of states in the protection of these rights. Not all African countries have domesticated the Kampala Convention. However, with Africa’s vulnerability to natural disasters and armed conflict all African states must ratify the Kampala convention to protect the rights of IDPs

Disaster unpreparedness

One of the major impacts of Cyclone Idai was to expose the lack of Disaster Preparedness and Planning. The nature and magnitude of the cyclone caught the government unprepared. There was no equipment and skilled personnel to rescue the affected communities. Assistance by well-wishers and donors was crucial, providing essential aid in the form of shelter, medicines, food, blankets, water and clothes. The arms of government responsible for managing disasters were not-fully capacitated to respond to the emergency. Donor agencies, the UN and other Non-Governmental Organisations played a major role in assisting.

African governments should put in place functional Disaster Management Plans. There should be functional, well-equipped and trained units that are fully able to respond to disasters. A country should not depend on donors to fund its Disaster Management process. Beavgui (2019) notes that the African continent has been struggling to allocate part of its limited resources to disaster preparedness, due to various competing priorities in health, education, infrastructure, and other sectors.  Recently, disasters such as cyclones, droughts, and floods are increasing in both frequency and magnitude due to the effects of Climate Change. Consequently African governments must be better prepared for natural disasters.

Climate Change

One of the major impacts of Cyclone Idai was to register to governments that Climate change is real and there is a pattern of climate disasters unfolding in the region. Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi are struggling to cope with the impacts of Cyclone Idai, and yet very little to do with generating the emissions causing the problem. According to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Africa is one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change, despite contributing the least to global warming. Economic superpowers such as the United States of America and China are the leading emitters of gases contributing to climate change, yet they suffer very little from the impact.

Gavin (2019) postulates that the general population in Africa is not yet widely aware of the science of climate change, although they are keenly aware of climate change’s effects. There is resulting demands on the state for better infrastructure, better planning, and better crisis response. These will be felt by African governments with increasing intensity. African governments, in turn, will be looking for leverage to demand more urgent action, and more equitable cost-sharing, from the largest economies. Cyclone Idai – which has been named as one of the major natural disasters to hit Southern Africa in the past twenty years – gives African governments the arsenal to demand an equitable distribution of resources among countries to counter the effects of climate change.

The role of donors and aid

Since the onset of cyclone Idai, numerous donors have come with food, medicines, water, shelter and clothes to assist affected communities. Dambisa Moyo in her book, Dead Aid, argues that aid has done more harm than good to Africa. She states that:

“…the notion that aid can alleviate systemic poverty, and has done so, is a myth. Millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but have increased. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world”.

With its vast natural resources, why should Africa run to the western world in times of disaster? Why should Africa look up to Donor Agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations in its time of need? African governments should reflect and ask themselves why the core issue of saving its citizens is left to donors and well-wishers. Donor agencies have so far raised €12m from the EU. While the governments of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi have requested for resources and emergency relief to help more than than million people affected.

According to Beavgui (2019), African governments are working towards changing this paradigm. The African Union Heads of State established the African Risk Capacity (ARC) in 2012 to support the development of better risk management systems, aimed at reducing dependence on the international community for disaster relief. African governments must strengthen the ARC and ensure that African states are better prepared to handle natural disasters.

Ched Nyamanhindi is a peacebuilding and development professional. He is  a a PhD candidate in Peace and Governance at Africa University, Zimbabwe. Ched also holds a Masters in Peace and Governance and has more than 10 years working experience in the non- profit sector in Zimbabwe. He has extensive experience working in anti-corruption, policy formulation, peace building and governance areas.

Phillip Nyasha Fungurai is Global Peace Ambassador affiliated with Global Peace Chain, a network of peace actors that advocates for peace across the Globe. Phillip is a DAAD fellow who subscribes to principles of peace, democracy and social justice. He is also an independent democracy and development researcher who works with various think tanks and civic groups in Germany, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


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