Southern Africa: Should Regional Leaders Shoulder Blame for Cyclone Damage?

As southern Africa reels from one of its most devastating natural disasters, questions are being asked about whether regional governments have done enough to prepare for the wide-scale destruction caused by Cyclone Idai, considering the history of flooding in the region and the consistent dire predictions of the impacts of changing weather, writes Legalbrief Africa.

The damage wreaked by Cyclone Idai, which struck Mozambique last Thursday before wreaking havoc in Malawi and Zimbabwe, is of a scale never before seen in the region, aid workers and government representatives have said.

The death toll in Mozambique now stands at over 700, but is expected to reach at least 1 000 as more bodies are recovered and the after-effects of the storm lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

But could the impact have been less severe if the region had been better prepared to handle it? In a frank report-back to MPs last week, SA's International Relations and Cooperation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said SADC was 'completely unprepared' for Cyclone Idai and other natural disaster events of this magnitude .

She said SA's capacity to identify and respond to natural disasters has 'gone down' and was worse than it was in 1999, News24 reports . Sisulu stated, in reference to the cyclone making landfall in Zimbabwe, that 'we didn't detect a cyclone; we thought it was just unseasonally heavy rains'.

She said the damage 'was beyond the (capacity of) support of SA'. Sisulu said this 'points to us as a collective, as the SADC, increasing our capacity of detection of weather patterns because we were completely unprepared'. SADC depended on SA's capacity, she said. Full News24 report

Instead of prioritising defences to threats like Cyclone Idai, governments of the region have focused too much on large scale development projects , argues Simon Allison in a Mail & Guardian article.

"Our leaders must shoulder much of the blame. Mozambique's Government, having received news of a vast gas find off its northern coast several years ago, proceeded to blow billions of dollars on corrupt deals instead of shoring up its defences. The "New Zimbabwe" has ruined its economy so badly that even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have refused to come to its aid, leaving the government without the funds to handle any kind of crisis.

" A dynasty of Mutharika Presidencies in Malawi has failed to deliver meaningful development of the type that might protect its people against these types of environmental threats. In SA, the rot is so deep that the failure of a few Mozambican power lines was enough to tip the country into rotational power outages. "

In the same vein, Tony Weaver, writing in the Daily Maverick , suggests that much of the damage and death and destruction could have been limited if there were any proper environmental controls in place in all three countries.

"In Malawi, every available piece of land is under cultivation and deforestation has taken place on an industrial scale, stripping the land of any vegetation cover that would have slowed down the flood waters.

"In Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands, and particularly the Chimanimani Mountains, illegal diamond and gold mining has stripped bare hillsides in the precipitous mountain range, and early reports are that many of the dead and missing are in villages engulfed by landslides.

"In Mozambique, the tens of thousands of peasant farmers and fishermen in the path of the cyclone have learnt from centuries of experience that the old adage of ' position, position, position ' is everything on that coast."

Amnesty International also called on regional leaders to support early warning systems, disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation strategies to save lives and protect human rights.

Muleya Mwananyanda, deputy regional director of Amnesty International for southern Africa, also said the international community must provide the necessary aid resources to save lives and provide relief to those affected. 'The devastation wrought by Cyclone Idai is yet another wake-up call for the world to put in place ambitious climate change mitigation measures. Full Daily Maverick report Full Mail & Guardian report Amnesty International report

Meanwhile, the situation in Beira was described as 'dramatic' with 'everything broken' .

The Mail & Guardian says the only bank that is functioning is BCI, but the queues are long. The minimum wait in line is four to five hours. Some people arrive at 9pm and are only leaving the next day. When they do leave, they are at the mercy of thieves who surround almost every ATM. Electronic payments are not operational because the internet and mobile phone networks have collapsed.

The only place in the city that has electricity and internet is the operations centre at Beira's airport, where the Red Cross has set up a server with free internet for journalists.

The district of Buzi, 150km from Beira, is the most affected. There are people (on top of) the trees and the few remaining buildings. The entire district is submerged, and there are more than 10 000 (flood) victims. The Central Hospital, the province's main hospital, is operating at only 20% capacity. The roof of the mortuary building has collapsed, affecting the cold storage system. The supplies needed to fix the building can only come from Maputo, but the roads are cut off.

Beira today is a ghost of what it was just a week ago; destroyed, submerged and cut off from the rest of the world . The full scale of the tragedy is yet to be understood. There is only one certainty: it is large.

An estimated 1.8m people in the region are affected . The Cape Argus reports that 800 000 in Malawi are and displaced, according to the World Health Organisation. Gift of the Givers is also providing emergency humanitarian relief to Malawi and was delivering aid to seven of the 11 affected districts.

In Zimbabwe, particularly in the rural area of Chimanimani, more than 140 people were killed.

Cyclone Idai lashed the Mozambican port city of Beira with winds of up to 170km per hour last week, then moved inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi, flattening buildings and putting the lives of millions at risk, and caused the Buzi and Pungwe rivers to burst their banks.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the Buzi and Zambezi rivers were at risk of breaking their banks again. "We're going to have to wait until the flood waters recede until we know the full expanse of the toll on the people of Mozambique," OCHA coordinator Sebastian Rhodes Stampa said. The storm has also killed 259 in Zimbabwe, and the number was expected to rise, relief agencies said.

In Malawi, 56 people died in heavy rains before the onset of Idai. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said cases of cholera have been reported in Beira, notes TimesLIVE . Full TimesLIVE report Full Mail & Guardian report

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