Cyclone Idai devastates Mozambique - When Warning Systems are not enough

Since 4 March, the tropical depression Idai had been crossing the Mozambique Channel, the body of water between Mozambique and Madagascar. There, the storm drew water vapour up from the ocean and intensified. Idai’s destructive force gained momentum due to the high sea-surface temperatures – summer in southern Africa had just ended. On 15 March, the tropical storm slammed the coast near the port city of Beira. The city’s infrastructure has been destroyed and parts of the surrounding areas are under several metres of water. The death toll is feared to be in the hundreds.

Behind the major city of Beira lies the Buzi District. Many rivers snake across this fertile country, with townships dotted along them. For years, it was known that strong rains, flash floods and storm surges could cause major damage – as could tropical storms that randomly, yet frequently, howl in from the coast. Locals recognised the danger and created early-warning systems in cooperation with national political institutions such as the Mozambique National Institute of Disaster Management and development cooperation agencies like IP Consult, the German Red Cross, Save the Children and the German Society for International Cooperation. The Munich Re Foundation funded and partnered two of these systems; one in the rural area of Buzi, and another in the shanty towns of Beira.

Warning systems based on local resources
The goal was not to install high-tech warning systems like those seen in the USA or Japan, or to build massive protective structures, such as the ditches and dykes seen in flood hotspots along the coasts of Europe. Rather, the aim was to use local resources on hand to establish efficient systems and sketch out evacuation routes, rescue zones and critical infrastructure using risk maps. The most important parts of the projects were preparing people for risk situations, training them to respond to a real-life emergency and enhancing their risk perception. These training measures have helped and will continue to help local inhabitants to adapt to the changes and risks associated with climate change.

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More information on the flood-warning system in Beira:
http://www.risk-award.org/risk-award/Projects-and-Reports/RISK-Award-2012.html

More information on the early-warning system in the Buzi district:
http://www.munichre-foundation.org/home/DisasterPrevention/Archive/Mozambique.html

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Volunteers for flood warnings in Beira have been attending risk management trainings for years.

Why was there so much devastation nevertheless?
We know from our network partners in Mozambique, such as the Red Cross, that the early-warning systems worked quite well. Relief supplies were mobilised even before Idai reached the land thanks to forecast-based financing mechanisms. Many people in the region most susceptible to flooding were evacuated. Even so, more than 50.000 people remained stranded in trees and on rooftops one week after the storm, still waiting to be rescued. The warning systems described above also worked as well as could be expected. The problem with Idai was the sheer scale of the hundred-year storm and the extent of the destruction. The strength of the storm and the torrential rains meant that the evacuation routes determined before the event were unusable in many cases. Shelters were either flooded or destroyed, and the protective measures that locals were trained in were no match for the storm’s might. Even if more resources had been set aside for early-warning systems, it would not have altered the outcome this time. The causes of the immeasurable suffering of so many people are different this time: 

  • Beira is located in a cyclone-risk area. Nothing can change that fact.
  • Despite its economic success in recent years, Mozambique is still among the world’s least developed countries. Consequently, much of the infrastructure, such as streets, bridges, energy systems and public buildings, is simply not built to last.
  • Poverty is a part of life – especially in the cities. It can be seen in the building materials of many houses and the large number of shanty towns.

It does not matter how well established and widespread risk prevention in form of early warning is – low-quality building materials and building stock, questions of poverty and extreme events which go beyond local expectations will always prevent such programmes from being a complete success. In such cases, risk management reaches the limits of what it can actually achieve. Ultimately, one key issue here is the fight against poverty. One of the most promising ways to build up effective resilient structures and prevent losses from events like Idai is to achieve sustainable economic development in the country.
 


Flooded areas in the Buzi disctrict (© Stefan Kienberger, Integrated Spatial Analysis, University of Salzburg)

Publications on this subject:
http://www.munichre-foundation.org/dms/MRS/Documents/RISK-Award/2013_IntoAction04_Beira_Final/2013_IntoAction4_Beira_RISKAward_New.pdf
http://www.munichre-foundation.org/dms/MRS/Documents/IntoAction02Mozambiqueweb.pdf
http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/natur/sturm-idai-in-mosambik-die-angekuendigte-katastrophe-a-1258797.html 
 

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