Southern Africa: Catastrophe of Cyclone Idai

28 March 2019

For almost two weeks now, since March 15, 2019, the world has been in utter shock by the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai in the southern African countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Official estimates put the number of deaths at about 750. However, reports from rural areas, where hundreds of dead bodies were found floating on receding waters, shows that many more persons have lost their lives in the natural disaster.

For instance, in the Mozambican city of Beira, eyewitnesses said as many as "300 to 400" bodies line the banks of a road, and flood waters have formed an inland ocean that is visible from outer space. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said that about 1.7 million people are affected by Cyclone Idai in the three southern African countries.

To express the magnitude of the destruction, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said the destruction was "worse than we imagined" and warned that the humanitarian needs "will tragically only deepen in the coming weeks." Its statement further said, "Already, some cholera cases have been reported in Beira along with an increasing number of malaria infections among people trapped by the flooding." Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi later said "everything indicates that we can have a record of more than 1,000 dead." This corroborates the mass loss of lives, as IFRC revealed that the mortuary in Beira "is full and dozens of bodies need to be removed and handled in a dignified way."

A victim, 59-year-old Chimanimani resident in Zimbabwe, gave an account of how the cyclone devastated their home thus: "We were sleeping in the house around 10 p.m. in the evening and it was raining. It kept on pouring when rocks sliding from the hill started hitting our house. The stones we built our house with collapsed on us, and then I yelled, 'oh my, I'm dying!' The soils had filled my mouth, nose and ears. Water filled the house to almost my neck level ... I started to shake my husband's body to no avail. He was already dead."

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa has declared March 23 and 24 as national days of mourning because of the magnitude of the destruction. Some Western countries have begun to provide humanitarian aid, especially the urgently needed water, medicine and food. We encourage African countries, including Nigeria, to extend all the necessary support they can muster to cushion the effects of this catastrophe. Such support should not be left to Western nations or the United Nations alone.

Most importantly, we call on African countries to improve on their disaster preparedness. Cyclone Idai devastated many villages in the coastal areas because there were no fortresses that could have withstood the surge. In many Asian and Western countries where natural disasters occur constantly, governments have inculcated the culture of building cyclone or tsunami-resistant structures in areas prone to such disasters. We, therefore, call on governments in African countries to encourage their citizens to build houses that could resist natural disasters that are prevalent in their areas. Also, we call on government to construct safe structures that would become a haven for the people in areas prone to disasters.

The people affected were taken by surprise because meteorologists in these countries did not give them an advance warning. In most developed societies, alarms are raised three or four days before such disaster pounds on victims. The people are moved to safer grounds before mayhems. This way, the casualty figures are reduced to the barest minimum. But in this case, the death tolls proved that the people were not warned and they were not evacuated before the deadly Cyclone Idai hit them. In the 21st Century, people should not be left to die cheap deaths. Africa has to embrace modern technologies that can reduce human casualties from natural disasters.

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