5 April 2019

Zimbabwe: Story Behind Cyclone Destruction

Photo: MSF
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The damage caused by Cyclone Idai could have been significantly minimised had government paid attention to warnings about serious environmental degradation in Chimanimani, it has emerged.

The Zimbabwe Independent can reveal that government was warned about the ecological problems, which included rampant destruction of several hectares of plantation forests by illegal settlers and gold miners, which intensified two years ago which exacerbated the impact of the cyclone and resultant floods.

Information at had indicates that the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe (FCZ) and timber companies operating in the mountainous district raised the red flag over the cutting down of trees which they said rendered communities extremely vulnerable to natural disasters, such as mud-slides and rockfalls in the event of heavy rains.

They even called for an all-stakeholders' meeting to try and salvage the situation, but to no avail.

During a visit to Chimanimani at the weekend, the Independent also observed that the most destructive landslides, rockfalls and mudslides took placed in places which had lost significant tree cover.

Areas which still had intact forests appeared largely unscathed.

Idai -- described as the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the entire southern hemisphere by the World Meteorological Organisation -- made landfall in Mozambique on March 4 this year as a powerful category five storm before racing to Chimanimani.

The storm managed to pack winds of 170km/hr before making landfall, which is about as strong as a tropical cyclone can get.

It now emerged that what turned Idai from a natural hazard to a human disaster was a chain reaction of social vulnerabilities created by long-term environmental degradation, population pressure and political expediency.

Mountains have lost significant tree cover due to illegal settlers, who for over 15 years have besieged the forests, rampantly uprooting, cutting and burning trees to prepare farmland.

The FCZ has over the past decade been trying to drive the illegal miners and settlers out of the forests but has failed to do so because settlers enjoyed tacit support from government and Zanu PF as they claimed to be beneficiaries of agrarian reform and black empowerment programmes.

This is despite the fact that these forests were set aside for conservation and are protected against any other use by the Forestry Act. In legal terms, they are known as gazetted forests.

In 2016, the FCZ carried out a multi-temporal satellite imagery assessment which revealed that over 45 000 hectares of forest had been destroyed by gold miners and settlers in just 10 years.

The FCZ has particularly been worried about the state of Ngangu Mountain near Chimanimani town, at the foot of which sat several houses, some of which were destroyed by landslides, claiming up to 70 lives.

"We have been worried for a long time with the situation at Ngangu Mountain. If you look at the satellite images and compare with what it looks now, you will see that the rockfalls and landslides would track where there were no trees. Places which still had intact forests were not affected. We are not saying the trees would have prevented the cyclone from happening, but they would certainly have minimised the damage and this is scientifically proved," an FCZ official who preferred anonymity said.

"This is the same case with the landslides which hit St Charles Lwanga School. People settled themselves in Tarka Forest and destroyed trees which hold together the rocks and the soil and we have this crisis as a consequence. There is a reason why those forests were left intact."

Information also indicates that players in the timber industry have over the past five years been pushing for an all-stakeholders' meeting to address the situation, again without success.

Allied Timbers warned government of possible disaster in 2017.

"The situation is really bad. Diversion of rivers where the terrain is steep and soils can be eroded easily is causing serious damage to the environment and, in such a scenario, normal forest activity cannot take place. The mining grants must be reversed; we appeal to government to reconsider their issue and stop all mining operations in the gazetted forests," correspondence, in 2017, to government by Allied Timbers chief executive Dan Sithole reads.

"Logging, residential and infrastructure development and other activities continue to expand on slopes highly prone to landslides. Excessive soil water content is the primary cause of slope failure while steep slopes, weak soils or topography that concentrates water are the main factors contributing to landslide risk," it further reads.

A forester with a local timber company who preferred anonymity said that in 2017 new settlers used tractors to plough through five hectares of freshly planted pine trees and set newly harvested timber on fire as they cleared land for commercial farming north of Tarka Forest, where, at the onset of the cyclone, landslides sent huge boulders littering the bed of Nyahodi River, knocking down homes along the way.

"We reported them to the police. They were arrested and fined just US$20 for the offence. Soon afterwards, they returned and continued with their activities. They boast of strong political connections," the forester said.

Forestry Company spokesperson Violet Makoto said: "It would be insensitive to talk about those issues right now when so many people lost their lives."

A visit to Rusitu Valley where Kopa Growth Point was entirely wiped out proved that there was discord between human beings and their environment: those social processes generating vulnerability on the one side, and physical exposure to hazards on the other.

For instance, mountains enclosing the growth point are still fully clothed in big trees and there was no sign of landslides on their steep slopes, yet the lower lying land is buried underneath rocks and pebbles transported by the flooded Rusitu and Nyahodi rivers from the affected areas upstream.

"We don't even know where these rocks came from. We only saw them coming down along with the water," Luke Mabhurugwa, a survivor of the cyclone who lives close to the growth point, said.

While some of the more superstitious villagers have been quick to suggest that the tragedy was caused by some fictional monster which traversed the once the usually serene environs and left its occupants wailing in grief, it would appear that the loss of forests that buffer Chimanimani against landslides, flooding and storm surges may have worsened the impact of Cyclone Idai.

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