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Picking up the pieces, but were Cyclone Idai warnings ignored?

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Picking up the pieces, but were Cyclone Idai warnings ignored?

As affected countries continue to endure the effects of Cyclone Idai, Wanjohi Kabukuru, probes if this was a disaster waiting to happen – especially in Mozambique.

For Professor Salomão Bandeira, a marine botanist at the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, 14 March 2019 at 23:30 GMT –  the day and time Tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique’s second-largest city of Beira – was the beginning of three days of anguish. His mother, relatives and friends were caught directly in the cyclone’s path.

While his family got lucky, the stories from other families are painful reminders of what the UN has since described as “possibly the worst ever weather-related disaster to hit the southern hemisphere”.

Travelling at speeds estimated by the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) at 194 km per hour, Tropical Cyclone Idai brought misery to three South Eastern African states – Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The rains that came with Idai created an inland ocean the size of Luxembourg.

Within days, official figures from the Mozambican government indicated that 598 people were dead, 1600 were nursing injuries, more than 131,600 had been displaced and were living in temporary shelters, 715,000 hectares of crops were washed away, 112,000 houses destroyed and 90% of Beira destroyed.

A high-level UN Economic and Social Council Meeting convened on Cyclone Idai had established that $300m was needed for the humanitarian and reconstruction needs of the affected countries. Only $40m was available.

But over the years, there have been ample warnings about the fragility of the Mozambican coast and cities like Beira but they had been ignored, and poor planning compounded the damage caused by the cyclone Idai.

Since the calamity serious questions have been asked about the quality of national and regional disaster risk preparedness, management, climate information dissemination and relief support.

Warnings neglected

Ten days before it hit Mozambique as a cyclone, it was nothing more than a tropical depression crossing through the Mozambican Channel – an area between Mozambique and Madagascar.

Long-serving meteorologist and former director at the WMO, Dr Evans Mukolwe, says that it is here at the Mozambican Channel that Idai picked up momentum and sucked in moisture destined for other parts of Africa, due to sea surface temperatures.

Since the calamity serious questions have been asked about the quality of national and regional disaster risk preparedness, management, climate information dissemination and relief support.

That an elaborate global early warning system is in place is not in doubt. For several weeks in February, the Météo France in Réunion had kept tabs on the cyclone and relayed timely and constant advisories to Mozambique’s National Institute of Meteorology and the neighbouring nations.

But it is clear the warnings were never broadcast appropriately and on time to millions of citizens. The level of preparedness was also wanting, signifying negligence.

The developments were not entirely unexpected for Beira, which lies on the estuary of Pungue River.

The city is classified as being in a high-risk cyclone zone and one of Africa’s most vulnerable cities in terms of extreme weather conditions and hazards. Tropical Cyclone Idai just exposed Beira city’s mitigation and resilience weaknesses.

Ten years ago, under the UN’s Global Risk Identification Programme, Mozambique’s Instituto Nacional de Gestão de Calamidades (National Institute of Disaster Management) published a comprehensive country situation analysis report which outlined all the climate-related natural calamities experienced in Mozambique stretching from 1956 to 2008, and gave recommendations.

Of all the cities straddling the Mozambican coastline, Beira was singled out as the “most threatened by sea level rise and increasing intensity of cyclones”

The report noted that Mozambique had experienced 13 tropical cyclones and 20 floods, which at the time had collectively claimed 2,618 people. The report went on to warn that climate change was going to increase these natural calamities in future.

The central provinces were identified as risk spots for floods, cyclones and epidemics. Of all the cities straddling the Mozambican coastline, Beira was singled out as the “most threatened by sea level rise and increasing intensity of cyclones”.

The report was categorical that the city’s nature based solutions needed to be bolstered. These included strengthening Beira’s fast-eroding dunes, decaying sea defences and the restoration of the disappearing belt of mangroves which acted as biological shields protecting the city’s population of 500,000 inhabitants.

In 2013, Romy Chevallier at the South African Institute for International Affairs, through its Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme, echoed the same warning given by the disaster management agency. According to Chevallier, Mozambique had exposed itself through the decimation of natural bioshields as a result of increased dredging, which had destroyed corals and degraded mangroves.

“Mangroves must form an integral part of Mozambique’s climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction response,” Chevallier noted in her report, Balancing Development and Coastal Conservation: Mangroves in Mozambique.

“Mangroves provide a natural defence against coastal flooding. Given this, it is vital for the Mozambican government to incorporate these climate change risks into its planning and investment decisions, and to

The aftermath of disaster: A semi ripped-up palm tree stands amidst rubble on the beach in the Praia Move area of Beira formulate a national response plan to climate change that incorporates coastal vegetation.”

These recommendations were not given due attention as dredging along the Beira coastline and deforestation of mangroves continued unabated. According to the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), sand dunes, mangrove forests and coral reefs act as natural barriers, which in turn helped in reducing the energy and force of the 2004 Asian tsunami waves in Sri Lanka.

SEI notes that areas where development went right to the coastline were severely impacted. Several other studies commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) soon after the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami, which claimed over 200,000 lives, also echoed SEI’s findings.

“There is considerable evidence that coastal forests can reduce the force, depth and velocity of a tsunami, lessening damage to property and reducing loss of life,” Keith Forbes and Jeremy Broadhead noted in their study, The Role of Coastal Forests in the Mitigation of Tsunami Impacts.

“Numerous anecdotes, field surveys and scientific studies in India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand of the 2004 tsunami and other tsunamis show a connection between areas with the highest levels of damage and the absence of coastal forests,” they added.

For years Professor Bandeira, who is an expert on mangroves and sea grass ecosystems, has warned about the dangers of the wanton degradation of coastal ecosystems in the name of development across the coastal and island states of the Indian Ocean. Apparently few take notice of his advice.

Beira Masterplan

In 2014 the Beira Masterplan, which is aimed at turning this coastal city into a sustainable and resilient metropolis by 2035 through renewal and expansion, by pursuing a green infrastructure development path, was launched.

In June last year, the World Bank announced its $120m ‘Mozambique Cities and Climate Change Project’, which envisaged the rehabilitation of Beira’s storm water drainage system, the installation of flood control stations, the construction of water retention basins and the refurbishment of drainage canals.

At the time of the masterplan’s launch, the mayor of Beira, Daviz Simango, waxed lyrical, describing the infrastructure developments as marking “the end of the suffering of a whole population”.

The mayor further outlined the city’s urban renewal plans. “Our green infrastructure project will transform Beira,” Simango said. “We will plant over 7,000 trees, establish a botanical garden, reestablish mangroves, build recreational infrastructure, among other work. This is arguably the largest green infrastructure in the region.”

A vital component of this green programme looked to rehabilitate the Chiveve River into a green urban park that would offer ecosystem services such as flood control, urban cooling, drainage and enhance retention. According to Bandeira, the Chiveve tidal river was built in the 60s to act as a natural drainage system during storms and floods.

In retrospect the mayor spoke too soon. Eight months later and Cyclone Idai had breached the fortified defences of Beira and overwhelmed the ideals of the Beira 2035 Masterplan. The damage caused by the cyclone is now forcing Mayor Simango, the government of Mozambique and a retinue of global experts to urgently come up with smarter solutions for this threatened, high-risk city.

“The combination of mangroves and coastal natural belts are essential,” Professor Bandeira says. “You know Beira is a city located below sea level, having swamps everywhere. Beira is the only city in eastern Africa where nature-based solutions using mangroves as a storm and extreme tide buffer existed from the 1960s.”

Bandeira adds: “We are rushing to Beira to assess the state of mangroves in the Pungue-Buzi estuary, which miraculously remained intact. We plan to map the villages around and assess the green infrastructures as a tool of coastal defence so as to understand their roles in protecting communities.”

According to Bandeira, there are vital lessons to be drawn from Beira for future cyclone responses. “[That a] small part of Beira was not inundated by the cyclone is due to the smart solution role played by mangroves and other drainage systems, which prevented the town itself from being flooded,” he says.

Coral reef expert Dr David Obura, who leads the oceanography think-tank, Coastal Oceans Research and Development Indian Ocean (CORDIO), based in Mombasa, Kenya, echoes his sentiments. Obura, who has led deep-sea studies across the entire Indian Ocean, explains that many such studies indicate that ecosystem features such as mangroves, corals and seagrasses are important as coastal and island bio-shields.

“Coral reefs, where present, completely break the energy of the largest waves, so are critical in reducing the wave energy that hits the coastline,” Dr Obura says. “Seagrasses are also very important as they increase the drag underneath the waves. So while not as big a physical barrier as the others, they also help, and they may be very important in maintaining the health and integrity of both the reefs and mangroves.”

Given the Beira cyclone experience, Dr Obura is emphatic that the continent’s 38 island and coastal states should take on board disaster risk reduction strategies.

“Countries should look into the relevant, correct grey and green integrated infrastructure strategies that work for them and invest in ecosystem-based infrastructure as a primary line of defence. This also supports food and other livelihood security aspects at the same time.”

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Written by Wanjohi Kabukuru

Wanjohi is an award-winning international environmental investigative journalist, whose specialty covers environment, geo-politics, business, conservation and the Indian Ocean marine development. Over the last 17 years Mr. Kabukuru has written extensively on energy, marine science and environmental conservation. His articles have been published in top-notch publications as African Business, African Banker, Inter Press Service (IPS), New African, BBC Focus on Africa, Mail & Guardian (South Africa), Africa Renewal, 100Reporters, and Radio France International (RFI) among numerous other publications.

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