After the storm: Mozambique faces the long-term challenge of reconstruction and climate resilience post-Idai

After the storm: Mozambique faces the long-term challenge of reconstruction and climate resilience post-Idai

On 23 April 2019, children play with unprotected electrical wires on a street in Beira, Mozambique.

(Flavio Forner)

Since Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique in March 45-year-old Ana Antónia Jonas hasn’t had anywhere safe home to live. Her house collapsed on the night of 14 March, the roof was blown away by winds that reached a maximum speed of 195 kilometres per hour, and the walls fell apart. The cyclone made landfall near the port city of Beira on that same night and caused catastrophic damage across six provinces until it dissipated on 21 March. In many places, nothing was left after it passed.

For the past two months, Ana Antónia – a mother-of-four and a widow – has been working in a temporary security job with G4S at a field hospital in the Macurungo neighbourhood of Beira, a city that was 90 per cent damaged by Cyclone Idai. “I have nothing left, no money or means to rebuild my house. I wish I could receive some sort of support to help me and my children to survive,” she tells Equal Times.

Thirty-five-year-old Andrade Memo, who also works in the same hospital disinfecting vehicles and medical supplies, says he and his family are lucky to be alive after their home was hit by strong winds at around 9pm on that first night of the cyclone.

“There was tremendous panic. The neighbours started fleeing their homes in search of somewhere safe to protect their children,” says this father-of-two. “The following day, I saw a lot of ruins. Many people who could not find a safe place suffered so much, and many others lost their lives,” Memo tells Equal Times.

Over 1,000 people were killed, and more than three million people were affected after Cyclone Idai tore through Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe this March, destroying roads, houses, schools, bridges and farmland. Just five weeks later, on 25 April, Mozambique was also hit by Cyclone Kenneth, marking the first time in recorded history that two strong tropical cyclones have hit Mozambique during the same season.

As well as being faced with the challenge of death, displacement and rebuilding the country, survivors are also battling outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases. The World Bank estimates that it will cost U$2 billion for the three countries to recover.

But progress is being hampered by the slow response to the disaster, both from the Mozambique government and the international community. Although the government has created a post-Idai reconstruction office under the Ministry of Public Works, Ana says she is yet to receive its help. “The international NGOs are the ones helping us. The help we receive comes from overseas. I haven’t seen any support from the government yet.”

And she is not the only one. “Where I live, no help has not arrived yet,” says Gina Jorge, a 43-year-old domestic worker from Beira. “I only eat when I am at my work because my boss feeds me. The price of groceries has gone up after the cyclone,” she laments. “Even to buy one kilo of sugar or rice is difficult for me.”

Some families have been more fortunate. Santos Faria, 27, lives in the Matacuani neighbourhood of Beira. He says he has received 12 kilos of rice, oil and salt from the government. “I feel the government is trying to help little by little, but we are a lot of people who suffered.”

A new chapter of indebtedness

In April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to grant Mozambique an emergency loan of US$118.2 million to help rebuild its infrastructure. The Fund described the storm as the “the worst and costliest natural disaster to ever strike the country,” and said the disbursement under the IMF’s Rapid Credit Facility would help address the country’s “immediate financing needs and play a catalytic role in securing grants from donors and the international community.”

However, observers fear a new chapter of indebtedness may open for Mozambique, along with other low and middle-income countries that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. It is feared that the “climate debt trap” will leave behind a trail of loans to be repaid over the years and decades to come.

The UK-based Jubilee Debt Campaign is very critical of the IMF loans to Mozambique. In an April statement, its director Sarah-Jayne Clifton said: “It is a shocking indictment of the international community that a country as impoverished as Mozambique has to borrow from international institutions in order to cope with the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai.”

The Jubilee Debt Campaign is calling for emergency grants to be made available to all impoverished countries in response to disasters like Idai, “especially those linked to the climate breakdown primarily caused by richer countries in the global North.”

And yet the response of the international community to the disaster in Mozambique has been muted, according to Michel Le Pechoux, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) deputy representative for Mozambique. By the end of May, just one-third of the initial humanitarian appeal had been funded, although international donors pledged US$1.2 billion to accelerate Mozambique’s recovery efforts at an international conference at the beginning of June.

“Mozambique will suffer from disasters and needs to make sure that its educational, health and social protection are ready to respond. People who have been displaced are now returning back to their villages or being resettled, but the problem will persist. They will face food insecurity and a lack of basic services that were totally destroyed,” Le Pechoux tells Equal Times.

“In order to respond to all these challenges, we need resources. We’ll have to increase the efforts to mobilise countries to support Mozambique so that we can help the reconstruction work, reestablish basic services and assist the vulnerable families that will be soon returning to their communities,” he argues.

Time for a new disaster risk reduction plan

Mozambique – which was the country worst affected by Cyclone Idai with more than 600 people killed and over 1.8 million people impacted – is now facing the uphill challenge of reconstructing its infrastructure. It also faces the task of rebuilding a more solid and resilient social protection system for its population. UNICEF is currently designing a six-month programme to support families in the aftermath of the cyclone with cash transfers, but the amount is yet to be defined, and no start date has been announced.

For the UNICEF representative, there is no doubt that the country will experience an ever-increasing number of climate-related disasters, for which it will need to be fully prepared in order to respond more effectively in the future. “Only this year, there were two cyclones – Idai and Kenneth – that made landfall. Two years ago, the El Niño drought impacted the area. Climate change is deeply affecting the region and bringing the strongest effects to poor communities,” says Le Pechoux.

Mozambique ranks third amongst the African countries most vulnerable to multiple weather-associated hazards, and it suffers from periodic cyclones, droughts, floods and related epidemics, according to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) – a grant-funding mechanism managed by the World Bank which supports disaster risk management projects in developing countries.

The GFDRR’s 2018 annual report says that rapid urbanisation and the impact of climate change are changing the disaster risk profiles of many African countries. Past challenges were mainly related to drought and food security, but now climate-associated and hydrometeorological events like floods and cyclones are also likely to occur. Such a shift, experts say, calls for a new disaster risk reduction agenda in the region.

“Mozambique is a country with vulnerability to multiple risks,” Maria Felizardo Adrião, head of planning and budget at Mozambique’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, says in the report. “We have annual losses of 1.1 percent of GDP because of floods and cyclones. We need the risk financing process to protect our national budget and our livelihoods.”

The long process of reconstruction

A team of 20 Brazilian firefighters spent over a month in the country’s most affected areas, first in Beira and Dondo – the two cities severely hit by Idai – before being deployed to Pemba in the aftermath of Cyclone Kenneth.

“We opened the access of roads that were obstructed by huge falling trees, which is a time-consuming and dangerous task, so that trucks loaded with food, water and supplies could reach the isolated villages,” explains Captain Kleber Silveira, a firefighter and pilot.

The rescue and disaster management team set up temporary shelters for the displaced population, tents for health assistance and fixed the only water distribution station in Beira.

The post-reconstruction phase is expected to last for a year, according to infectious disease specialist Telma Azevedo who led the Portuguese Red Cross team in Beira. They built the field hospital in Macurungo, next to a health centre that was partially destroyed by Cyclone Idai. The tents consist of a maternity ward, a surgical ward, a pharmacy and spaces for daily consultations.

“We’ve assisted patients with chronic diseases, hypertension, cardiovascular and parasitic diseases, HIV infections and malnutrition. Cholera is now under control, the remaining cases were kept isolated and treated,” says Azevedo.

The focus now is on preventing the escalation of malaria due to the rainfall and the optimal environment for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes to proliferate. By end of April, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported about 6,600 cholera cases and approximately 15,000 malaria cases in Sofala province alone. The field hospital is expected to remain in Macurungo for the next nine months until the hospital (which serves around 35,000 people in this district of Beira) is reconstructed.

“The emergency response has now ended. What we’ll need is a development plan for the affected areas. The reconstruction efforts will have to be prioritised from now on. During the initial phase, everyone is alert, but after some time no one will remember this tragedy anymore. There will be deep consequences for the next months and years,” warns Azevedo.