Our Burning Planet


While thousands of Africans still suffer from Cyclone Freddy’s devastation, researchers aim to improve early warning systems

While thousands of Africans still suffer from Cyclone Freddy’s devastation, researchers aim to improve early warning systems
People cross a flooded area in Muloza on the border with Mozambique in the aftermath of Cyclone Freddy, about 100km outside Blantyre, Malawi, March 18, 2023. (Photo: Reuters / Esa Alexander)

Even in the presence of accurate technical guidance of imminent impacts, early warning systems may fail due to a lack of uptake and community engagement, including in the most vulnerable communities.

Albert Sharra is one of many Malawians still reeling from the deadly impact of Cyclone Freddy in March 2023. He lost 16 family members who washed away in the floods, including his sister and her eight-month-old child. Now, a new project aims to improve early warning systems and save lives when the next tropical cyclone hits.

Cyclone Freddy has been described as one of the most devastating weather events to affect southern Africa in general and Madagascar in particular in terms of its duration and intensity, which scientists say has not been experienced in this region and is an indication that cyclones will become more intense, last longer and cause more rainfall under a warming climate.

cyclone freddy

People from Mtauchira village walk past a home damaged by a mudslide in the aftermath of Cyclone Freddy in Blantyre, Malawi, on 16 March 2023. (Photo: Reuters / Esa Alexander)

According to the International Organization for Migration, Freddy left half a million people displaced, caused hundreds of deaths due to flooding, and destroyed livelihoods, houses and infrastructure.

To limit the disastrous impacts of tropical cyclones in vulnerable communities in this region, local and international scientists have begun working on a new project to improve early warning systems and enhance resilience to these events.

A big part of the project will be enhancing anticipatory governance structures for flood and tropical cyclone risk management in local communities, including early warning dissemination and scenario-based community-specific action plans in Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique.

Speaking to Daily Maverick, people in these affected areas said more work like this was needed, and that Cyclone Freddy was unlike any of the storms they had witnessed or prepared for in the past.

On the ground in Malawi 

Albert Sharra described the catastrophic conditions in Mulanje, southern Malawi, he returned to days after the cyclone ended. A total of  67 people died in this village alone, with roads, houses and almost the entire village being washed away.

Sharra was in the UK when the cyclone hit. He returned to Malwai to bury 16 family members who were washed away in the floods, including his sister and her eight-month-old child.

Sharra’s sister, Evelyn, had left Mulanje and gone to a camp a few days before the storm hit but returned home to fetch some of their belongings when she realised they would be at the camp for longer than expected. It was during this time that the cyclone struck, killing Evelyn and 66 others.

“Of the 67 people who died, more than half had decided to remain in their homes (instead of evacuating) and the rest were just going back to collect some belongings when they realised that their homes would collapse… This was when the big [storm] changed its route and they were all swept away – nothing could be recovered, all the houses, property and everything. Not even bones were recovered.

“I was completely heartbroken… I know my sister fought hard to save her life because she died with her baby on her back. The magnitude of the cyclone was just too much, and there’s nothing that you could have done,” he said.

Malawian journalist Bobby Kabango visited the affected districts in Malawi to report on the devastation. With many roads and bridges washed away, this proved a difficult task. Kabango often slept at the camps and in the bush with those who had been left homeless.

“This was one of those moments I will never forget… I saw people and animals being flushed out. There was a group of 15 people that climbed a tree and were sitting there for three days waiting for officials to come and rescue them. Later I found out that the tree had collapsed and all those people were washed away before they could be reached. During the rescue efforts, even the rescue boats were being washed away,” he said.

In Mulanje, Kabango said he came across people picking up corpses and body parts. These were burnt to prevent animals from eating them. He said it was a harrowing cremation for those who lost their lives.

The Represa project

The Resilience and Preparedness to Tropical Cyclones across Southern Africa (Represa) project got under way in June 2023 and continues until November 2026. 

The project takes place under the Climate Adaptation and Resilience research initiative co-led by the Global Change Institute (GCI) of Wits University, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Francois Engelbrecht, Professor of Climatology at Wits University and director of the GCI, said that in just four years, southern Africa experienced two tropical cyclones – Idai in 2019 and Freddy in 2023 – which each killed more than 1,000 people.

“This project is going to spend three-and-a-half years in the field. We are going to work with the Red Cross in each of these three countries, with the overarching research capability of the Red Cross, known as the Red Cross Climate Centre, and with disaster risk management specialists of the North West University,” said Engelbrecht.

He added that they would be working through NGOs such as the Red Cross to try to build trust between scientists, forecasters and communities so that they are willing to respond when they get these warnings.

cyclone freddy

An aerial view of houses damaged in Muloza on the border with Mozambique after Cyclone Freddy, about 100km outside Blantyre, Malawi, on 18 March 2023. (Photo: Reuters / Esa Alexander)

Dr Elizabeth Kendon, Professor of Climate Science at the University of Bristol, explained that the anticipated outcomes from this project include a community-led design of early warning systems messaging; improved multi-hazard early warning systems across Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar; stress-tested humanitarian anticipatory action plans, and better-informed climate adaptation planning at multiple levels from community to national government.

“These outcomes will ultimately reach millions of people living at the intersection of extreme poverty and flood exposure, and will enable us to achieve the ultimate goal of saving thousands of lives over the next decade, and strengthening resilience to tropical cyclones in marginalised communities and fragile contexts,” Kendon said.

She said the fact that there are early warning systems gaps is evidenced by the considerable loss of life caused by recent tropical cyclones such as Idai and Freddy. These gaps may be of a technical nature, or in terms of the messaging and dissemination to impacted communities.

Kendon added that even in the presence of accurate technical guidance of imminent impacts, early warning systems may fail due to a lack of uptake and community engagement, including in the most vulnerable communities.

Kendon explained that the project was targeting Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar because these are the countries in the region most affected by tropical cyclones.

“They are most impacted because they lie in the path of tropical cyclones that spin up in the Indian Ocean and then make landfall over southern Africa. In addition, the conflict in northern Mozambique, the rise of armed violence in Madagascar, and the magnitude of displacement create conditions for further unprecedented, compounding risks,” she said. 

Climate change and cyclones

“Little is known about how tropical cyclones will change in the region under global warming,” Kendon said.

Engelbrecht referred to Cyclone Idai, which first made landfall in Beira, Mozambique, in 2019.

“It was absolutely devastating, and it is now estimated that about 1,600 people died in the path of that cyclone, mostly in Mozambique but also in Malawi and Zimbabwe… It’s a shocking event and many can’t believe that it can happen in this day and age because the early warning systems are so good.”

Then, earlier this year Tropical Cyclone Freddy made landfall in Madagascar, then in Mozambique, and eventually reached Malawi – killing more than 1,400 people, according to Engelbrecht. 

According to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change interacts with multi-dimensional poverty, among other vulnerabilities, and Africa is projected to bear an increasing proportion of the global exposed and vulnerable population at 2°C and 3°C of global warming. 

When it comes to tropical cyclones, the report states there is limited evidence of an increased frequency of category 5 cyclones in the southwestern Indian Ocean and more frequent landfall of tropical cyclones over central to northern Mozambique.

“There is a projected decrease in the number of tropical cyclones making landfall in the region at 1°C, 2°C and 3°C of global warming, however, they are projected to become more intense with higher wind speeds, so when they do make landfall, the impacts are expected to be high,” it stated.

Responding to early warning systems 

In the Represa project, researchers will also be investigating what deters communities from responding to early warnings and evacuating in time. 

Engelbrecht echoed Sharra and Kabango, saying that people in informal housing are hesitant to give up their properties and lose their belongings. They are worried about their safety and what will happen after they evacuate. They are also concerned about the availability of food and water.

Kabango said that people are still living in temporary camps that were set up after Cyclone Freddy, with almost no assistance to rebuild their lives and houses.

Both Sharra and Kabango believe that the government response should have been better, with forced evacuations being implemented.

Sharra said he arrived in Mulanje 10 days after the cyclone and the government had still not visited the area. 

Kabango said many of the survivors had no assistance in retrieving the bodies of their loved ones. DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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