Of Cyclone Idai and preparedness for disasters

MILLIONS of hapless citizens of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe are still mourning and counting their losses after the cyclone, Idai, which ravaged those southern African countries recently. The tragic occurrence left the countries almost prostrate in facing the daunting task of rescue operations and restoring public confidence in the capacity of the state and its leadership to rise to the challenge of human and natural disasters of such magnitude. A lot of communities, especially in Mozambique, almost went under as the accompanying flood destroyed everything in its path. With a velocity of 177 kilometer per hour, (106 mph), the cyclone was described by world organisations as one of the worst to ever hit Africa.  According to the United Nations, the disaster claimed over 1,000 lives with hundreds of thousands of citizens displaced, while the World Food Programme (WFP) said that the tragedy caused “incredible devastation,” with nearly two million people affected. Most devastated was Mozambique, where aid workers struggled to reach survivors trapped in remote areas. Villages were submerged, with thousands of residents stuck on rooftops, in trees and other raised structures. Given the imminent food crisis coupled with possible outbreak of epidemics, the WFP warned that 1.7 million Mozambicans would need help. The level of devastation was not the least marginal in Zimbabwe where dozens of people lost their lives while key infrastructure and amenities were destroyed, especially in Chimanimani and Chipinge districts, near the border with Mozambique.

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Weeks after the calamity, hundreds of thousands of people are reportedly still in need of food, water and shelter in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. In Mozambique alone, at least 746 people died; thousands were injured, about 669, 903 hectares of crops were destroyed and 99, 317 houses were damaged or destroyed. Statistics on the casualties inflicted on Malawi are equally frightening, because aside the dozens killed, more than 672 people were injured and 19,328 households displaced. A total of 868,895 persons suffered varying degrees of misfortune in the wake of the disaster. An official of the International Federation of the Red Cross, Caroline Haga, underscored the humanitarian crisis occasioned by the catastrophe when she said rescuers dropped high-energy biscuits, water purification tablets and other supplies to people marooned and surrounded by nothing but water and reddish brown mud. Travis Trower, principal of Rescue South Africa, recalled her memories of the scene where mothers passed him their children from trees.

To cushion the immediate effects of the disaster, the European Union, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates and Tanzania donated millions of dollars for emergency shelter, hygiene, sanitation and healthcare, just as a giant US oil firm donated $300,000 to the relief efforts. Leaders of the distressed countries, in unison, described the incident as the worst in the history of their respective countries. For instance, Mozambiquan President Filipe Nyusi admitted that it was the worst humanitarian disaster in Mozambique, describing all his compatriots that were involved in the operation as national heroes. We sympathise with the people and governments of the affected countries. Sadly, since the African continent is still ravaged by protracted internecine wars with huge humanitarian crisis, grinding poverty, diseases, collapse of national economies and inept leadership with dictatorial tendencies, the latest tragedy has only further compounded its woes. The disaster exposed the underbelly of African leadership with its lack of capacity for managing disasters, whether human-made or otherwise. That rescue workers had to pluck survivors from trees and roofs to safety a week after the cyclone incontrovertibly shows African leaders’ lack of capacity and vision. More importantly, it calls for a change of strategy and new thinking on disaster management. Africa needs to be less reliant on foreign help each time it is confronted with catastrophe.

Though natural disasters are beyond human control, their negative impacts can be substantially minimised through responsible leadership that prioritises planning and deployment of technology.  Therefore, rather than sustaining dehumanising conditions, African leaders must adopt strategies that add value to human lives and the environment.

They should realise that no amount of platitudes can bring back those killed in Cyclone Idai; neither can clichés assuage the hurt feelings of the survivors. The authorities must take pragmatic steps to enable them to pick up the bits and pieces of their lives. There are great lessons for Nigeria and indeed other African countries in the Southern African tragedy. To say the least, the management of such calamity requires capacity. African nations need to build capacity to avert helplessness all the time.

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