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Cyclone Idai – an alarm bell for disaster readiness and resilience

Tropical Cyclone Idai has affected the central part of Malawi, the northern and central regions of Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe. Could better information sharing and disaster planning have saved thousands of lives and benefited the over 2 million people affected?

The aftermath of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique © Denis Onyodi: IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre

Wind speeds of up to 105 mph were measured when Cyclone Idai had hit Mozambique on March 14 before moving into Malawi and Zimbabwe, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Probably the worst natural disaster in Southern Africa for 20 years, questions have since been raised regarding national capabilities to cope with the growing impacts of climate change.

“Weather-related disasters can be complex indeed, our contingency plan was inadequate, even if we had planned for the worst-case scenario,” says Madzudzo Pawadyira from the Department of Civil Protection (DCP) in Zimbabwe “There is a need to strengthen forecasting of severe weather, including impact forecasting, and especially for calculating rainfall amounts for adequate early warning,” Pawadyira continues.

Zimbabwe suffered damage to water points, schools, bridges and its road network. “If the DCP knew about this worst-case scenario, especially rainfall amounts and the trajectory of the cyclone, those communities would have been warned to evacuate,” states Pawadyira, underlying the need for improved community-based disaster risk management and preparedness.

In Mozambique, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has made an initial appeal of US$19 million to support cyclone-affected areas, where homes, livestock and crop harvests have been washed away. The damage has been especially devastating in the Manica and Sofala provinces, where approximately 25% of the country’s cereal output is produced.

Recurring climatic disasters

Increasingly frequent floods and droughts, scorching temperatures, water and food scarcity are emblematic of climate change across Africa – arguably a continent considered to contribute the least in climate change. Prior to the current disaster, 1.8 million people in Mozambique were already severely food insecure and, according to FAO, this figure is likely to rise as the extent of the damage becomes clear.

In 2016, Zimbabwe declared a state of disaster following floods that hit the southern part of the country, as a result of Cyclone Dineo. In total, 117 people were killed, over 100 others injured, and property damage was estimated at US$100 million. In 2000, Cyclone Eline dumped heavy rains that flooded most of southern Zimbabwe and Mozambique, killing 350 people and displacing 650,000. Many people displaced by this disaster are still in need of rehabilitation.

Before Cyclone Idai hit, Zimbabwe was also in the midst of yet another drought, and the Government has already been providing food aid to more than 5.3 million because of failed harvests. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the cyclone disaster has compounded an already dire situation: “Whatever crops that were being grown despite the drought have now been destroyed and this (Chimanimani) district will need help from the international community now more than ever,” says Paolo Cernuschi, Zimbabwe IRC country director.

Disease outbreak

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which recently launched a US$122 million humanitarian support appeal, says more than 1.5 million children urgently need assistance in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe following Cyclone Idai. The appeal is on the back of fears that flooding, combined with overcrowded shelters, poor hygiene, stagnant water and infected water sources, could lead to the spread of cholera, malaria and diarrhoea. “For children affected by Cyclone Idai, the road to recovery will be long,” says UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore. “They will need to regain access to health, education, water and sanitation. And they will need to heal from the deep trauma they have just experienced.”

According to Fore, the UNICEF teams are on the ground helping children to heal and adapt, but the organisation’s resources are overstretched. “We will initially need $30 million in the first stage of the response and look to our public and private donors to be generous to the thousands of children and families who need support,” she says.

Investing in resilience

Mozambique experiences a tropical cyclone once or twice each decade. “From analyses of all tropical cyclones in the southwest Indian ocean, we know that these storms are increasing in frequency and are starting to move pole-wards in their locations of formation and landfall,” explains Jennifer Fitchett, a senior lecturer in physical geography at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in South Africa.

Governments need to implement disaster risk planning to ensure effective evacuation in the event of natural disasters, as well as storm tracking and forecasting to provide accurate warning and enable countries to adapt and prepare in order to reduce the damage to infrastructure. “Research exploring the climatology of past storms, and developing models to project the future of these storms, increases the level of accuracy from which decisions are made. Unfortunately, there remains little discussion and knowledge sharing between researchers and policymakers,” Fitchett adds.

The sobering impacts of Cyclone Idai demonstrate the critical need for southern Africa to invest in adequate early warning weather systems. Although this will not prevent natural disasters occurring, investment in such systems could help to reduce their impact and mitigate the fall-out so that vulnerable populations are better protected in future.

Busani Bafana

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