There's a Disaster in Southern Africa You Probably Haven't Heard About
Mozambique’s president said the death toll could reach 1,000.
A powerful cyclone that made landfall on March 14 unleashed the most destructive flooding seen in Mozambique in more than 20 years, creating a humanitarian emergency that encompasses millions of people across three countries, according to the Associated Press.
Although media coverage of Cyclone Idai has increased over the past few days, aid workers worry that the news cycle will quickly move onto something new, making it hard for humanitarian groups to raise the funds needed to address the scale of the crisis.
The UN has already asked for $23 million in emergency funding, the International Red Cross is asking for $10 million, and the humanitarian organizations CARE, Save the Children, and Oxfam have called for $16.9 million — funding targets that all need sustained attention.
"To speak quite frankly, it’s impressive to see such big interest in a natural disaster happening in Africa even of this magnitude,” Mahmoud Shabeeb, humanitarian communications manager of CARE USA, told Global Citizen. “Sadly, this will likely dwindle very fast, because the world doesn’t put much interest or care in certain countries."
Whether or not coverage of the cyclone and its aftermath remains ongoing, the suffering on the ground will continue.
"The word needs to get out," said Greg Ramm, vice president of humanitarian response at Save the Children. "This is horrible, this is catastrophic, help is needed."
"The world woke up to this a bit a late, it hit Friday, and it's only now that the word is getting out," he added. "There's been an underestimation until today of the magnitude of the disaster, flood waters are still rising, villages are still at risk of being submerged, entire villages have essentially been melted due to the floodwater. We are seeing only the beginning of this, the faster we can get assistance at scale, the more we can avert death and harm to children and their families."
The death toll from flooding, landslides, and infrastructure failure is estimated to have already surpassed 700 in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, and that number is expected to rise as rescue workers sift through the damage. Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi told the AP that the death toll could reach 1,000.
Soldiers carry supplies to areas affected by Cyclone Idai in Chimanimani, about 600 kilometers southeast of Harare, Zimbabwe, March 18, 2019.
In Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, for example, falling rock dislodged by flooding crushed a dormitory housing sleeping students, and in Beira, Mozambique, bodies can be seen floating in the street, according to the New York Times.
The port city of Beira, which bore the brunt of the cyclone’s force, has been nearly destroyed by the cyclone and remains inaccessible by road, according to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society.
“Our colleagues in the rescue missions have seen people clinging onto rooftops because entire areas have been completely submerged in water,” Shabeeb said. “There’s been a complete power outage over past few days, even communication with rescue teams is almost impossible, telephone networks have completely collapsed.
“A lot of the construction and infrastructure was not really strong, but even if it was, with a cyclone of this magnitude, the destruction would be massive,” he added. “We’re talking about people’s entire homes and villages being destroyed, that also includes some schools and health facilities. Roads have also been completely blocked by rubble and falling trees.”
Shabeeb said that the cyclone was made worse by its arrival during the height of the rainy season. In Malawi, heavy rainfall caused flash flooding that killed scores of people in the days leading up to the cyclone, and in the weeks ahead additional rain will likely exacerbate regional flooding.
And as dams in Mozambique reach 100% capacity, authorities have been releasing water to relieve pressure in order to avoid collapse, which has caused further flooding in nearby areas. Other dams have been totally destroyed, according to the Times.
Humanitarian organizations are currently working to contain the damage and rescue people trapped by the flooding.
“Our teams went there to assess the damage rapidly, but they have since been involved in rescue efforts,” said Shabeeb. “There are huge needs for rescue, people’s houses have been destroyed, we’re looking at moving people to other areas that are safer, temporary shelter areas, we’re providing tents, tarpaulins, build some form of roof over their tops.”
The rescue effort has been complicated by the collapse of infrastructure, including bridges and roads. Shabeeb said that CARE sent 13 trucks with supplies to Mozambique but workers are unable to fully transport the goods because key bridges are missing. Save the Children had teams on the ground in the days leading up to the cyclone, which allowed immediate aid to be delivered in some areas, but bringing additional relief workers to the region has been challenging.
"The airport is on a bit of higher ground and is open for business, so flights are bringing supplies in," said Ramm. "But out in remote areas, the logistical challenges are enormous. When your infrastructure is weak, the impact of a cyclone is going to be that much worse."
The United Nations stressed that the failure of infrastructure partly reflects long-standing problems with development.
“Cyclone Idai underlines that no matter how effective early warnings are, there is still a huge demand for greater investment in resilient infrastructure in many parts of the world if we are to break the cycle of disaster-response-recovery,” said Mami Mizutori, UN special representative for disaster risk reduction (UNISDR), in a statement.
As the humanitarian situation becomes more clear, humanitarian groups will be working to deliver medicine, food, and water to affected communities. The World Food Program (WFP) is planning to reach more than 1.2 million people with food assistance in the weeks ahead.
Children, in particular, are at risk of long-term trauma if they're not reunited with their family members, said Ramm of Save the Children.
"Their lives are fragile to begin with," he said. "They need basic shelter, food and water to survive, and healthcare because children are often the most vulnerable to disease."
"They need to get back learning," he added. "They need places to play and they need love and care. As important as it is to look at lifesaving things, to avoid long-term trauma they need some restoration or normalcy, of family life, play, learning, and safety."
The relief efforts could take months and even years as infrastructure is rebuilt and families receive financial assistance, and Ramm believes that funding targets will only be increased. As a result, it's urgent that adequate attention be paid to the communities in need.
Although the crisis will remain urgent for a long time, Shabeeb worries that the international community will forget about the crisis in the days ahead.
“The really important thing is that it’s not over yet,” he said. “Rain will still continue in all three countries and that will cause more and more damage and the needs will grow greater.”
Updated March 25, 4 p.m. ET. This piece has been updated to reflect the rising death toll of Cyclone Idai.