International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies photo

Cyclone Idai Could be Deadliest Storm Ever: Is It a Sign of Things to Come?

Millions of people across Africa have been affected in one of the worst weather-related disasters recorded in the southern hemisphere.

The full scale of the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Idai is becoming clearer, the United Nations said on March 19, warning that the emergency “is getting bigger by the hour”.

Five days after the storm made landfall in Mozambique, causing widespread damage and flooding, hundreds of people are feared dead there alone, with 350 deaths already confirmed. An estimated 1.7 million people were in the path of the cyclone in Mozambique, in addition to the 920,000 people affected in Malawi and “thousands more” impacted in Zimbabwe. Victims are reportedly trapped on roofs and clinging to trees awaiting rescue, while across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, tens of thousands of people have lost their homes, while roads, bridges and crops have been washed away.

“We are talking about a massive disaster right now where hundreds of thousands -in the millions of people – (are) potentially affected,” said Jens Laerke from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “We need all the logistical support that we can possibly get.”

Although floodwaters have begun to recede in Zimbabwe and Malawi, allowing some people to return home, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned that Mozambique is facing “a major humanitarian emergency that is getting bigger by the hour”.

In Mozambique, WFP aims to support 600,000 people affected by the cyclone, which struck with wind speeds in excess of 150 kilometres per hour. In Malawi, the UN agency plans to target 650,000 people with food assistance. Aid access is the biggest challenge, after two swollen rivers burst their banks. Heavy rain is continuing and more is forecast.

Gerald Bourke, WFP’s Regional Communications Officer for Southern Africa, told UN News that the “key concern is for those people who have been stranded, isolated by the flood waters…People that have overflown the area speak of inland oceans, running for mile after mile, with water above tree level.”

Matthew Cochrane, spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, underlined the perilous situation, noting that colleagues “talked of flooding perhaps in parts as deep as six metres, covering roofs, covering palm trees covering telephone poles”.

To date, WFP has coordinated airlifts of high-energy biscuits, water and blankets to people crammed on rooftops and elevated patches of land outside the port city of Beira, where 90 per cent of buildings are damaged, including the agency’s warehouse and port unloading machinery.

“It was very difficult to land a plane like this,” said WFP spokesperson Herve Verhoosel. “Can you imagine in an airport, damaged by the water, dark with no light or radio communication with the control tower, nothing. I mean, those pilots are incredible.”

Four tonnes of biscuits were delivered by air on Tuesday, in addition to the 1.2 tonnes dispatched on Monday – part of a 20-tonne consignment flown in from Dubai. Negotiations are also “at an advanced stage” to bring in two freight aircraft to Beira, including a Hercules C-130, the agency said.

To respond to people’s health needs, Christian Lindmeier from the World Health Organization (WHO) explained that the initial priority is helping those with crush and trauma injuries.

“So for the immediate needs, WHO is positioning health kits, emergency health kits, trauma kits and also cholera kits in order to be able to assist people on the ground, as soon as these kits gets there,” he said.

Longer-term needs will include dealing with a potential rise in waterborne diseases and rebuilding “many destroyed health centres”, the WHO spokesperson added.

Jamie LeSueur, who is leading response efforts in Beira for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said waterborne diseases can increase in the aftermath of a disaster such as this due to the contamination of the water supply and disruption of usual water treatment. “Outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis, hepatitis, cholera and other diseases could follow as a result,” he said.

Malaria is endemic in Mozambique, peaking during the December to April rainy season. The extensive flooding could result in stagnant water that could become perfect breeding sites for mosquitoes.

On March 20, Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi declared three days of national mourning.

Natural or man-made disaster?

Cyclones, along with other extreme weather events, wildfires and earthquakes, have long been referred to as “natural disasters”, but scientific research in recent years has shown that these disasters are man-made, or are at least worsened by human activity. It may be too early to draw specific conclusions from Idai, but The Guardian quotes several experts who believe the rapidly changing climate means the destructive power of such storms is only going to increase in the future.

Dr Friederike Otto, of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, told the newspaper: “There are three factors with storms like this: rainfall, storm surge and wind. Rainfall levels are on the increase because of climate change, and storm surges are more severe because of sea level rises.”

Otto said it was important to help communities in the worst-hit areas become more resilient to storms. “The standard of housing, the size of the population and effectiveness of the early warning systems … these are the sorts of things we need to think about as we move into a world where these events become more severe.”

Paulo Ceppi, of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, agreed it was inevitable that climate change would lead to more severe storms and said there is a direct link between global warming and cyclone intensity.

Dr Rebecca Emerton, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, told The Guardian her team was working with experts in the area hit by Cyclone Idai to try to improve forecasting and warning systems. “It has been an active cyclone season in the Indian Ocean this year with seven intense cyclones already, compared to an average usually of three.”

The UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mami Mizutori, said 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.

Mizutori added that Idai has underlined that no matter how effective early warnings are, there is still a huge demand for greater investment in resilient infrastructure in many parts of the world if we are to break the cycle of disaster-response-recovery.

“It is particularly distressing that severe damage has been done to schools, hospitals, health facilities and other key infrastructure as this will have consequences not just for the emergency response phase but for the long-term efforts of these countries to eradicate poverty and hunger.

Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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