The tropical cyclone that tore through Beira, Mozambique, has devastated towns, killed 1,000, affected 1.5 million more, and “left almost everything destroyed.” And yet, it has taken over a week for the first international responders to reach the southern African nation.
The Indian Navy led the charge in limiting the catastrophe that is currently underway in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe; on Thursday, three of our ships reached the cyclone-hit region to lend a hand at rescue and relief operations, two days after the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said that the cyclone was shaping up to be one of the worst weather-related disasters in the Southern Hemisphere.
However, as the full scale of devastation from Cyclone Idai becomes apparent, it is time we address how the combination of rapid urbanisation and climate change is taking a lethal turn in some of the world’s poorest places—revealing the fundamental injustice at the heart of climate change.
Here’s what happened
Since making landfall on March 15, the cyclone, dubbed Idai, with wind speeds of up to 170-200 km/hr, swept through coastal Mozambique before heading inland into Zimbabwe, where it has killed at least 98 people. Heavy rain causing floods, in the days before, alone killed at least 56 people in Malawi.
According to the WMO, the cyclone unleashed a record tide of 3.5-4 metres, which rose as high as six metres in some areas.
In Mozambique, although the official death toll climbed above 200, President Filipe Nyusi warned that it could easily pass 1,000 as it is still quite impossible to gauge the scale of damage so far.
Close to 90% of Beira, a port on the Indian Ocean with a population of around 600,000, has been destroyed, and 400,000 of them are homeless, according to the Red Cross. According to the Press Information Bureau of India, about 5000 personnel, marooned at Buzi near Port Beira, require immediate evacuation.
According to news reports and aerial footage, entire neighborhoods—
covering approximately 492 sq km in Mozambique—are underwater with roofs of hundreds of buildings stripped off. Landslides have blocked roads in some areas, while floods have washed them away in others. Schools remain buried under mudslide debris. Aid groups are coptering people from treetops or dropping food to those that can’t immediately be lifted off, while local volunteers are braving chest-high water to rescue victims trapped on elevated ground and rooftops.
“The damage is so severe because the affected areas are densely populated,” said Sergio Zimba, spokesman for Oxfam in Mozambique, one of the charities rushing to mitigate the damage in Mozambique.
First international responder
In a circular dispatched on Wednesday, the Defence ministry announced that three ships, Sujata, Sarathi, and Shardul, operating in the Southern Indian Ocean were diverted to Port Beira, based on a request received from the Government of Mozambique “to provide Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) to the local population post the devastation caused by cyclone ‘IDAI’,” adding, “The safe evacuation of the affected personnel by IN ships is being coordinated in consultation with local authorities.”
“The disembarkation of HADR stores, including food, medicines, and clothing to the Mozambique Defence authorities has been completed. Arrangements are in progress to disembark potable water,” it read.
This registers the first international response to the Mozambican calamity, although it is not a first of such involvements for India. The country’s naval forces have stepped up to commence relief operations in Indian Ocean littorals, South China Sea, West and South Asia several times in the past, and according to Mint, with the growing urbanisation of coastal areas, Indian ships will increasingly be at the forefront of rescue efforts in disaster-hit states.
“This cyclone has come at a very huge human cost,” Nick Mangwana, Zimbabwe’s permanent secretary for information, said in a tweet Tuesday.
This Cyclone has come at a very huge human cost. Mozambique is saying their death toll can reach a thousand people. They are presently not sure how many people are missing. We certainly need a regional approach to these effects of Global Warming. These problems are transnational— Nick mangwana (@nickmangwana) March 19, 2019
India is bilaterally linked to many African countries by means of intra-continental free trade, investment or development projects.
The Indian Navy has played a particularly significant role in humanitarian missions since the 2004 tsunami, besides search and rescue, and emergency evacuations of people in need of urgent assistance, gradually building on this strategy to flex India’s diplomatic soft power. With the widening scope of maritime operations, therefore, HADR has become synonymous with the Indian Navy, while humanitarian assistance becomes a vital component of India’s regional political outreach.
A navy with a humanitarian past
To list a few, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard led 19 Indian naval ships to conduct relief missions in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Maldives after the 2004 tsunami.
In 2017, when some of the fiercest floods and landslides killed over 200 people in Sri Lanka, naval assistance from India helped in rescue and relief. When cyclone Mora hit Bangladesh shortly after, INS Sumitra had once again been dispatched to conduct search and rescue operations and retrieve castaways.
Besides assisting in the aftermath of natural disasters, the Indian Navy has helped evacuate scores of Indian expatriates and foreign nationals stranded in conflict zones like Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Lebanon.
However, with the Chinese and Pakistani navies putting up strong competition as regional responders, New Delhi has frequently expressed concern that Beijing might be using humanitarian operations to boost its security and diplomatic influence in South Asia. The use of regular warships instead of special medical ships by the three rival nations, adds to this anxiety.
However, it is important to not lose sight of what’s at stake, here and now. Mozambique is known to average about 1.5 tropical cyclones a year, although rarely more powerful than Category-2. Because of sea-level rise, floods are now more intense than it would be without human-induced climate change.
The Indian Navy’s response in Mozambique, therefore, is a matter of setting an example to the world at this point; by rendering critical life-saving assistance at a time when most advanced economies are shirking their responsibility and guilt, it turns the spotlight on the flawed structure of global humanitarian aid programmes when it comes to the world’s poorest countries.
A man-made ‘natural’ disaster
Although science links natural disasters and global warming ever more clearly today, advanced nations continue to obstruct key climate accords despite being most responsible for the state of the world. In such a scenario, developing nations bear the greatest brunt.
Flash floods like this one have killed hundreds in Indonesia and other low-lying coastal parts of Asia in recent years, while deadly, rain-induced landslides in Africa often don’t even make the news, even though the impact of climate change on coastal cities has always been a primary concern in the climate change debate
But how are poor countries with long coastlines adapting to it? And why has help become counter-productive?
It is well-known that in the case of natural disasters, international diplomatic response is not necessarily proportionate to the scale of the event. But rarely has the lack of a comprehensive global response been this pronounced.
As global funds to shore up infrastructure and protect coastal populations lag far behind promises of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement, southern Africa continues to struggle.
Besides pledging to curb global warming any further, these deals also aimed at limiting the fallout of climate change-induced disasters, with technologies to protect people from the adverse effects of changes in weather patterns, including rising sea levels. But the level of funding and speed of projects are failing to keep up with the pace of urbanisation and population growth.
A World Bank-supported infrastructure upgrade to improve flood defence was in the works in Beira when the cyclone hit; the Bank had drafted a report last year claiming that huge displacement of settlements to the cities, without proper sanitation facilities or electricity, posed a risk of weather-related disasters to 300,000 residents. The ongoing project, including rehabilitation of drainage systems and afforestation to delay runoff, requires over $300 million more for completion.
Another example of well-meant initiatives failing to meet the mark is the Green Climate Fund, established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009, to raise a significant portion of an overall funding goal of $100 billion a year by 2020 for climate-change adaptation in poor countries, with 43 projects in Africa. The Fund has so far received a mere $10.3 billion in pledges.
On a general note, scientists with the expertise still don’t have enough resources to carry out the computer modelling required, which speaks volumes about vain promises and empty slogans. Not to mention, the complete dismissal, by billion-dollar corporations and powerful lawmakers, of the multitude of studies advocating for immediate action.
Unless a rich benefactor steps in, BBC says that the role of human-induced climate disaster Cyclone Idai is unlikely to be clearly determined. With NASA listing Idai as the seventh intense tropical cyclone of the South-western Indian Ocean basin’s 2018-2019 season, with several more to follow before year-end, the state of humanitarian aid and programmes need more financial backing than ever.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius