It’s a common criticism of mainstream media, that when a humanitarian disaster strikes, there is intense coverage for a few days – and then the news agenda moves on. But while the stories may disappear from our screens, the demanding work of reconstruction - by individuals, communities, governments and international organisations - goes on for weeks, months and years, long after most journalists and reporters have left. Just over 3 months ago in March, Cyclone Idai, bludgeoned its way through the central parts of Mozambique, causing extreme devastation and widespread flooding in its wake. The UN estimates that 1.7 million Mozambicans lived in the path of the cyclone, which caused irreparable damage and the death of over 600 people.
What is a Cyclone and why was Idai so devastating?
Cyclones (sometimes known as hurricanes and typhoons) are caused when warm moist air above the sea begins to rise. As the air cools down, it is pushed out of the way by ‘new’ warm air rising from below, creating extremely strong winds. The whole system spins and grows like a giant engine using the warm moist air as fuel.
Whereas most tropical cyclones occur far enough out to sea to allow some preparation, Cyclone Idai, was unusual in that it formed close to the coastline, in the Mozambiqie Channel, leaving the Government and aid agencies little time to issue warnings. Central parts of Mozambique were hit by winds of over 220 km/hour. Sustained rainfall, and storms submerged whole towns and villages, displacing hundreds and thousands of people. Roads, bridges and dams were demolished after the cyclone first made landfall on 14 March.
Messages from Manica
21 March 2019: ‘Everyone in our team is fine, but very shocked and concerned with the situation. The damage is great. The majority of the affected area is still inaccessible by road and air resources are very limited.’
The impact of the cyclone was particularly severe on the coastal province of Sofala and in Manica, where eight of our colleagues work out of an office in the provincial capital.
In Chimoia alone, over 7000 people were affected by the floods and more than 600 people lost their homes. Our colleague Arlindo Muambale (see picture), who co-ordinates work relating to food security and nutrition, emailed us as soon as he could – almost a week after they cyclone hit – with news. He’s been sending us updates on the evolving situation - and changing demands - over the past few months.
At the end of March, he described how roads and homes have been destroyed, livestock swept away…. farms flooded and crops ruined. Those who survived now have little or no access to food, water and sanitation. The Mozambique Government asked for international assistance, including for food, shelter, education, health and non-food items, as well as logistical support.
United Purpose gets involved in disaster relief only where we already have a presence on the ground and are is a position to make a useful contribution. Of all the areas affected by the cyclone, we judged that the district of Manica, was the area we could offer greatest help. In the immediate aftermath, we were able to support operations to rescue vulnerable and stranded people; providing immediate support in terms of food, clean water and sanitation, and in a mass campaign against cholera.
The United Purpose team worked in coordination with the National Institute of Calamity Management, a Government organisation directly involved in rescue operations, monitoring the people affected by the cyclone. This included: doing an assessment of how many affected and what the damage is; work out what the correct response needs to be and reporting this to the government.
In April, Arlindo messaged to say that people were beginning to return to their home areas. As water levels dropped, routes were becoming more accessible and communities that had been cut off by the floods were being rediscovered. United Purpose in partnership with other international organisations, assisted with the distribution of food, tarpaulins for shelter, together with seeds and fertilisers. Programmes for water, sanitation and hygiene were an urgent and high priority.
During our latest ‘catch up’ with Arlindo in June, he told us how people in areas affected by the cyclone and flooding are still struggling to access safe water. The United Purpose team are balancing a mix of short term and longer term responses – ‘in the short term people need water so we are fixing and cleaning water wells, water springs and boreholes, and distributing water filters. To help people in the long term we are drilling new wells and building new toilets.’ ‘
On a weekly basis, United Purpose is coaching farmers on the best ways of producing vegetables farmers need seeds and tools – and the hope is to focus on this during the coming months. This is crucial step in trying to ensure that people can grow and harvest nutritious food in big enough quantities. But until their crops are ready, they continue to need food support.
The team are also planning to build lots of new toilets, aiming to help 1,800 households with a water, sanitation and hygiene programme.
In terms of the long term impact of the cyclone, this may be even harder to address. Many children lost both their parents, leaving them orphans and Arlindo stresses the need to monitor the psychological effects on people affected by the cyclone. Thousands of people have been forced to relocate to new areas. ‘The stabilisation of people’s lives will take a long time.’
What Next ?
United Purpose is continuing to make appeals for funding to pay for the reconstruction work in Mozambique, alongside the the government programme. Find out more about our work in the country here and to support our efforts, see here. All donations are gratefully received.