© Hanna Schmuck

Disaster prevention project in Buzi, Mozambique

A review

Disaster prevention saves lives -
Review of a foundation´s project

On 14 and 15 March 2019 Mozambique was hit by one of the worst tropical cyclones ever to hit Africa. Cyclone Idai uncovered house roofs, devastated local infrastructure, uprooted trees and caused the collapse of the mobile phone and electricity networks. Many people were killed and injured. 
The Munich Re Foundation has spent seven years helping to set up a flood early warning system in the Búzi district, which is considered a high-risk area. A study carried out for the aid organisation CARE by Dr. Hanna Schmuck examined the extent to which the disaster risk prevention measures established in the region were effective in the wake of Cyclone Idai. It also analysed where mistakes had been made and how an even greater part of the damage possibly could have been prevented.
The river Búzi in the dry season. A large part of the water masses responsible for the severe floodings came through this river.

Flood-warning project in the Búzi district

Together with the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GIZ (formerly GTZ), the Munich Re Foundation supported a disaster risk prevention project in Mozambique from 2005 to 2012. The focus of the foundation's support was on setting up, training and equipping local disaster risk management committees. The National Institute for Disaster Management (INGC) received technical and logistical support. In addition, a simple technical early warning system was set up on the river Búzi: water level gauges, a data transfer system and much more. At the heart of municipal activities had always been the development of risk awareness and personnel capacities so that those in charge and the population are able to react correctly in case of warnings. 

The role of local committees in disaster situations

The local disaster risk management committees in the catchment area of the Búzi play a key role in flood warning. They consist of 15 to 18 voluntary community members. During the period of the MRF project funding, the first committees were established along the Búzi and Save rivers, and today there are over 1,200 of these local units nationwide. They form the backbone of rural disaster management. 
Members of a local committee in one of Buzi´s neighbouring districts, Dondo.

The CARE study examined the behaviour and measures of the committees before and during the cyclone as well as throughout the subsequent catastrophic floods. The results confirm their remarkable relevance and effectiveness:

Local committees played a crucial role before, during and after the disaster. Even before the arrival of Cyclone Idai, they spread the warning within a few hours with megaphones and whistles in their communities and helped particularly vulnerable people to reach the few safe places. When the cyclone had swept across the region, leaving a landscape of devastation behind, they provided rescue and first aid measures. The necessary equipment had been supplied as part of the disaster risk prevention project. They also took care of the people gathering in temporary shelters by providing and distributing water and food until external help arrived. In some villages, the aid transports only arrived two weeks after the cyclone. Many community members attribute their survival to the work of the committees. An elderly woman in the village of Chicumba says: "Without the committee I would not exist anymore. I am a widow and my grown children live far away. Members of the committee have picked me up by boat from the roof of my hut and brought me to a house that was not submerged in water. Over there, they had organised everything as best they could in this situation. It was so cramped that there was hardly any place to sleep. But the members of the committee ensured peace and order and took care of us".

This elderly woman claims to owe her life to the efforts of local committees during the Cyclone Idai catastrophe.

A look back - where were the problems and hurdles?

What were the causes then of the serious damage and numerous deaths that the cyclone had left behind despite the remarkable work of the committees? All in all, there were many deaths in Mozambique despite the early warning. The figures range from 600 to over 1,000 victims, and the fate of many missing persons has not yet been clarified. In the port city of Beira alone, tens of thousands of houses were destroyed. Many factors were probably involved, some of the most important are:

 

  • Warnings about the storm and the subsequent floodings were given to the people on the "last mile" late and improperly. The time to switch from routine operation to a state of emergency was generally too short. Warnings were written too general and the content was sometimes incomprehensible. An example: "Wind speeds of 220 km/h" was not explained, remaining an abstract quantity for many people.
  • Warnings were often not linked to concretely implementable instructions for action.
  • As with many other disasters, there was warning-related misconduct. "Stay at home to be safe" kept people from leaving their homes in time and seeking protection in safer places. Tragically, the force of the cyclone and the extent of the subsequent flooding were underestimated. Many local dwellings did not survive.
  • Also the technical system for automatically recording rainfall and water levels was simply overwhelmed by the force of the events. 
This building did not survive the vehemence of Cyclone Idai and the subsequent flooding.

A look ahead - how can improved disaster protection be achieved?

Against this backdrop, what needs to be done to improve the early warning system and prevent disastrous consequences like those following Cyclone Idai? While the disaster risk management system had proved to be effective and helpful at the level of the local committees, the problems were at a higher level: coordination and cooperation between key organisations must become more efficient so that the transmission of warnings and alert levels can take place without delays and breaks. 

The CARE study recommends remedial action, particularly in the above-mentioned areas of administration. At the same time, there is an urgent need to develop further contingency plans with key local actors and to establish more evacuation sites in high risk areas.

Statistically speaking, a cyclone of the strength of Idai should occur on average only once in 100 years. In light of climate change, however, we must assume that storm and flood events like Idai will not remain exceptions. Only a few weeks after Idai, a second massive cyclone named Kenneth reached the mainland and again caused enormous damage in northern Mozambique. The government spoke of damages amounting to 3.2 billion euros caused by the two cyclones.

It is high time to orient practical and political planning more on scientific findings and to work out solutions together with the people at risk – just in accordance with the Munich Re Foundation's motto: from knowledge to action

A member of the local committee marks the water level that enclosed the emergency accommodation the during the floods. It is expected that floods of this scale won´t remain exceptions.

Further information

Dr. Hanna Schmuck

Hanna Schmuck has carried out the study for the aid organisation CARE. has 20 years of experience on disaster risk management and climate change adaptation with different organisations (Red Cross, NGOs, GIZ, DFID, UN etc.).

Since 2009, she is working as a free-lance consultant and researcher, specialised on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in high-risk countries in Africa and Asia. 

More about Hanna Schmuck can be read on her LinkedIn profile.

November 2020, Nora Fingado and Christian Barthelt (MRF), in collaboration with Hanna Schmuck
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