Cyclone Idai Devastates Southeastern Africa

Cyclone Idai caused significant landfall in southeastern Africa this past Thursday, causing widespread destruction by flooding roads and washing away bridges in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. UN officials have estimated that the severe weather has displaced nearly 1.5 million and killed more than 150 people across the region. As the governments of these countries work to declare states of emergency and issue public warning notices, international nonprofit organisations are working to get doctors and aid workers to remote regions in spite of damaged and destroyed roads.

The Zimbabwe Ministry of Information has urged all Zimbabweans to use extreme caution when traveling about the country, warning against “any efforts to cross flooded rivers” in a tweet Saturday morning. They emphasized the seriousness of the situation by reporting that the government has received “tragic reports of some people being swept away” by the current. In collaboration with the Zimbabwe Red Cross, the government has also established two command centers to coordinate rescue efforts and provide shelter to those displaced by the storm. Unfortunately, the chaos and lack of resilient communication networks in the sub-Saharan countries means that there is still much uncertainty regarding the situation. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a press release this Saturday that there has been huge “loss of life and significant damage to infrastructure.”

In addition, the damage done to the environment threatens to undermine the economic stability of the region. Agriculture is a prevalent industry in all three countries, accounting for 12% of Zimbabwe’s Gross domestic product (GDP) and 67.5% of its labor force, 24% of Mozambique’s GDP and 74.4% of its labor force, and 29% of Malawi’s GDP and 76.9% of its labor force in 2017. If the agricultural sector is unable to make a swift recovery following the floods, millions of people could be out of work and widespread famine could occur. Furthermore, the region gets approximately 60% of its power from an antiquated system of hydroelectric dams that have been destroyed by floods. Now, millions of people lack electricity in a region where 40 million people already lacked access. The struggle to gain electricity will likely hinder the rescue and rebuilding effort since almost all telecommunication infrastructure relies on mobile phones that need to be charged.

Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi also all rank among the worst nations in the world in the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), scoring 156th, 180th, and 171strespectively. These scores indicate that the reconstruction effort will require much time and investment from international nonprofit organisations, the UN and aid packages from foreign governments. This support will most likely come from the Chinese government, which has recently flaunted its ability to provide quick and significant support to sub-Saharan countries. Unfortunately for the host nations, China often imports its own labor force to complete infrastructure projects and then fails to teach local engineers how to properly maintain it. In exchange, China often receives decades of unfavorable rights to natural resources which devastate the country in the long-term. For this reason, it is essential that all parties within the international community assist in overseeing and contributing to the rebuilding effort. Simultaneous investment from several sources would mean that one country could not exploit this natural disaster for their own economic gain.

For the people of sub-Saharan Africa, the cyclone is worryingly reminiscent of similar flooding that occurred in Mozambique in 2000 and 2007. In 2000, Cyclone Eline killed over 250 people and displaced more than 650,000 across the entire region. Afterwards, it took years for entire cities to regain access to clean water, trash collection services and electricity. Hopefully the international community will be able to more effectively handle the disaster – however, global warming trends indicate that these events could become increasingly frequent in decades to come.

Since information remains sparse, it is difficult to predict the ability of the international community to respond to the crisis. However, regardless of the scale of damage, it is certain that Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi will all struggle to rebuild in the years to come. The international community must focus not only on pursuing responsible investment strategies in order to best facilitate this development, but also on creating infrastructure that is more able to withstand increasingly dynamic weather events that are sure to come in the future.

Luke O'Grady