Cyclone Idai need not have taken so many lives

Cyclone Idai need not have taken so many lives
A handout photo made available by CARE, an international humanitarian agency shows local residents inspecting the damages after cyclone Idai made landfall in Sofala Province, Central Mozambique, 17 March 2019. (Issued on 19 March 2019). A Category 4 Cyclone named Idai made land fall wreaking havoc knocking out power across the province and impacting every resident in Central Mozambique. EPA-EFE/JOSH ESTEY / CARE / HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT: WWW.CARE.DE

Much of the damage and death and destruction from Cyclone Idai could have been limited if there were proper environmental controls in place in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

My heart goes out to the battered and bruised people of Mozambique, the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, and southern Malawi. Cyclone Idai, which hammered in last week, and which is now still hovering, not moving much, has wrought untold destruction.

Early reports are of hundreds dead and missing – other than intensified load shedding because power lines from Cahora Bassa are down, we have been spared the worst in South Africa, unlike historic cyclones like Domoina, which struck KwaZulu-Natal in January 1984, killing 242 people.

Or the unnamed cut-off low-pressure system that hit KZN on 28 September 1987 that was one of the most disastrous storms ever to hit South Africa. It caused far more damage than Domoina and killed 506 people across the province. More than 50,000 people were left homeless, and some areas received up to 900mm of rain – just short of a metre – in four days.

Luckily” – although not lucky for those in its path – Cyclone Idai hit hardest in the relatively unpopulated coastal zones north and south of Beira, although pictures out of that city show some very heavy damage. Lucky too for the Mozambican tourism industry, which falters along, constantly hit by setbacks, the latest being the limited Islamic insurgency in the north around Palma.

Much of the damage and death and destruction could have been limited if there were any proper environmental controls in place in all three countries. In Malawi, every available piece of land is under cultivation and deforestation has taken place on an industrial scale, stripping the land of any vegetation cover that would have slowed down the flood waters.

In Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, and particularly the Chimanimani Mountains, illegal diamond and gold mining has stripped bare hillsides in the precipitous mountain range, and early reports are that many of the dead and missing are in villages engulfed by landslides.

In Mozambique, the tens of thousands of peasant farmers and fishermen in the path of the cyclone have learnt from centuries of experience that the old adage of “position, position, position” is everything on that coast.

They have all positioned their houses well inland from the coast in the sheltering lee of the endless dune fields and coastal thicket forests that line the Mozambican coast. It is only the (mostly) South African lodges that are built right on the beach or perched on the dunes overlooking the endless beaches.

Tofo, near Inhambane – and luckily out of the direct path of Cyclone Idai – is a minor example of the madness of Mozambican development. Behind the ribbon of dunes, there is a huge depression which the old-timers will tell you used to be a seasonal lagoon. Then there is a long sandspit that stretches north from the village of Tofo, and along that spit lie the restaurants, lodges and holiday homes owned, again, mostly by South Africans and Zimbabweans.

And so, inevitably, when the next big cyclone hits Tofo, we will read stories about “massive destruction” of the tourism infrastructure. The truth is, many of the coastal lodges should never have been given permission to build in the first place, and the sand spit could become an island.

As climate change intensifies, Cyclone Idai will be remembered as a relatively minor weather event. The era of super-storms and Frankenstein hurricanes is just around the corner. DM

This Man Friday column was first published by Die Burger, republished here with permission.


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