Tue, Apr 02, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Storm-slammed Mozambique must rebuild for ‘tomorrow’s climate’

Experts warn that governments have to prepare for climate change-enhanced storm conditions

By Megan Rowling  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BARCELONA, Spain

Illustration: Yusha

The destruction wrought by Cyclone Idai in southern Africa last month shows that weather warnings must spur action and infrastructure has to be built with climate risks in mind if people are to be kept safe on a warming planet, researchers and officials said.

The death toll from the powerful storm packing high winds, which barreled inland, has risen above 700 across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, with floods caused by the weather system affecting nearly 3 million people.

The region might also have lost infrastructure worth more than US$1 billion in the disaster, including damage to the Mozambican port of Beira, the coastal city where the cyclone came ashore, according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Mami Mizutori, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), said the devastation in and around Beira — where vast areas were flooded — was “a clear demonstration” of climate change adding to a pre-existing cocktail of risk rooted in poverty, unplanned urbanization, environmental degradation and weak ability to prepare.

“It is particularly distressing that severe damage has been done to schools, hospitals, health facilities and other key infrastructure, as this will have serious consequences for the long-term efforts of these countries to eradicate poverty and hunger,” Mizutori said in e-mailed comments.

Scientists are still exploring if and how global warming might have increased the rainfall and storm surge brought by the cyclone, but they have made general observations about how climate change could have worsened the situation.

Erin Coughlan de Perez, manager of the climate science team at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center, said climate change had increased average sea levels in the region, meaning it very likely boosted Idai’s storm surge, which hit informal settlements in low-lying parts of the city.

In many cases, warmer ocean temperatures fuel more intense rainfall in storms like Idai, with the large amount of rain dumped inland in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe responsible for many deaths and enormous loss of infrastructure.

Coughlan de Perez and other researchers said forecasts for Cyclone Idai had been accurate and well-disseminated.

What was missing was a detailed understanding of how different areas would be affected and a joined-up plan to act on the information, they said.

Douglas Parker, a professor of meteorology at the University of Leeds, said getting government departments to coordinate their response — something Britain has done to manage flooding emergencies better in recent years — was a tough task.

“Every country in the world faces these challenges, but in countries where the communications or governance of things are not as advanced as they might be ... then it can be a greater challenge,” he told reporters.

In Africa, weather extremes tend to be more severe, such as heavier rainfall and fiercer droughts, and people are more vulnerable “so the effects of a breakdown in communication or a lack of action are much more dramatic,” he said.

The Mozambican government began to put in place emergency staff and supplies ahead of Cyclone Idai’s arrival, although earlier flooding in the same areas hampered preparations, according to the US government development agency, USAID.

The Mozambican National Institute of Disaster Management, estimating that 600,000 people could be affected by the storm, also coordinated evacuations of those in its path, and distributed alerts and updates to communities via mobile phones, USAID said.

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