‘The sea is rising, the climate is changing’: the lessons learned from Mozambique’s deadly cyclone

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The tree had stood in the square for nearly 100 years. It was planted by his father, before Afonso Reis was born. He worked as a driver and “liked trees”, says Reis, who is in his 70s. People used to eat the bitter red fruit, but more recently it had provided welcome shade for the stallholders of a busy market in Beira, one of Mozambique’s largest cities.

“I liked to sit under the branches,” says Fina, 21, who sells tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and garlic in the market’s chaotic alleyways. Others hawk bananas, oranges, secondhand clothes. Life would change but the tree seemed constant. Then something odd happened. At about 2pm on 14 March 2019, the tree suddenly keeled over and crashed to the ground. No one was hurt, but people were taken by surprise. “There was only a light wind,” Fina says. “Who would have thought that a tree that size would just fall down?”

Seven hours later, the deadliest cyclone in the history of southern Africa hit Mozambique, before surging inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi. Cyclone Idai killed more than 1,000 people and devastated Beira, a sprawling port city of 500,000 people, built on a delta in the Mozambique Channel on the east coast of Africa. First there was wind, with gusts of up to 200km an hour, strong enough to blow off roofs and to send plates, chairs, even cats and dogs, airborne. The stink of rotting animals that had been flung into trees lingered for days.

Then came days of heavy rain and, finally, flooding. Beira lies at the mouth of two major rivers, the Buzi and the Pungwe; both burst their banks, submerging surrounding villages, trapping people on roofs and creating a new inland lake the size of Luxembourg. Thousands of trees were uprooted and at least 70% of the town’s buildings were severely damaged, with many losing their roofs; six schools and 60 churches were totally destroyed. The cyclone closed roads and shut the airport. Supermarkets ran out of food. Bread and water were rationed. More than 146,000 people lost their homes across four provinces.

Nearly two years on, Mozambique is trying to rebuild. But we are living in a time of record-breaking natural disasters: extreme droughts, epic floods, apocalyptic wildfires. Will we see more frequent catastrophes, such as Idai, strike countries that may not be prepared to handle them? How much is the climate crisis to blame, and what can wealthy countries do to help?

I meet Rita Chiramswuana, 51, and Fatima Vasco Limo, 45, in February, 11 months after the cyclone, in a leaky tent at Ndedja camp, which holds 2,355 people in 471 households, and is a two-hour drive from Beira. Farmers from John Segredo, a nearby village of 200 people, they have 16 children between them, including Zacarias, 11, adopted by Chiramswuana five years ago, after first his mother, then his father died.

Chiramswuana is lively, with a sparky style. She likes jewellery and wears blue nail polish and a crocheted bucket hat. Vasco Limo is quieter, more serene. They have been friends for years. “Our friendship is like this,” Chiramswuana says, holding up her index finger. “She is like the finger and I am the nail.”

Chiramswuana, her husband and nine children lived in two small houses in the village. Vasco Limo and her family had a similar arrangement. They grew their own food – cabbage, peanuts, maize, beans – had running water nearby and made enough money to send their children to school (education is free until grade 10, when pupils are 15, but parents pay for books from grade 8). They were also able to buy things for the home: plastic chairs, pans, forks. Chiramswuana had 20 ducks and 30 chickens; Vasco Limo had 15 chickens and two goats, a sign of high status in the village. Both dreamed of having a “real house” – of bricks, rather than mud and straw – and a torch. “It is very dark at night. Snakes come in and you can’t see them,” Chiramswuana says. But they were content.

Maria Mussa with her children and all their belongings, 24 hours after their home was flooded

There had been storms in the village before, with strong winds and heavy rain; when Vasco Limo heard neighbours talk about the cyclone, she thought this could be the same sort of thing (there was a government alert on the radio, but she doesn’t have one). At 6pm, she cooked yam and other vegetables for her family. When the cyclone started at about 8pm, she was inside her house with her husband and three youngest children, aged 10, 14 and four (the others were in a nearby house). She had her chickens and goats with her.

At 9pm, the roar grew louder. There was a huge crash. “The roof blew off,” she says. They sat there all night, the house open to the elements: “It was very dark. I hugged the children to me.”

The world turned grey and the rain started. “The wind was like a loud fan,” she says. “Drrrrrrr.” Others say it felt as if “the cyclone was coming up through the earth”. By 5am the wind had stopped and Vasco Limo went outside. “I could see houses had collapsed and people had died.” Among them was Anna, her 60-year-old neighbour. “Then I heard people screaming, ‘Socorro! Socorro! Help! Help!’ My husband ran to see what was the matter. He saw a huge mass of water – a flood – and he ran back.”

Vasco Limo and her family managed to escape the flood; they were ahead of the surge and reached higher ground before the village was swamped. But Chiramswuana didn’t. “People were trying to run from it but the water was coming really fast, really strong,” she says. With water already up to her waist, “the only thing we could do was climb a tree. First one person climbed, then they pulled the others up. People were being passed from one to the other.”

Chiramswuana was the last out of the water: she and her family stayed in the mango tree for 24 hours, in heavy rain, with no food, but too distraught to feel hunger. She sat silently on a branch with her eight-year-old daughter on her lap, one arm around the trunk, the other around her child, trying not to look at the carnage below: “Pigs, goats, chickens, crates, speakers, DVDs – even people being washed away.” Her brother and his five-year-old son took refuge in a different tree, which collapsed. His body was found covered in sand two days later; the little boy’s body was 400 metres away.

When Chiramswuana saw Vasco Limo at the camp four days later, they fell into an exhausted embrace. Vasco Limo says of the mango tree now: “This is my God! I give thanks.” But their village has disappeared and they can’t go home. They live in makeshift shelters and rely on aid. They were given seeds and a small patch of land. But there were freak rains last January, a disastrous turn of events for people relying on their first post-cyclone harvest. “The crops are useless,” Vasco Limo says. “When we had some savings, my husband and I would say, ‘What shall we buy? A duck? A chicken?’ I was building my life. I can’t do that any more. Everything’s gone – all of it, like that.”

Fatima Vasco Limo and Rita Chiramswuana, with her son Zacarias

Today, Vasco Limo, Chiramswuana and around 2,300 other homeless people still live in the camp. They have to stand in line for aid, as their last harvest was another disaster. “Intense heat burned the crop,” Chiramswuana says. But the most recent seeds “are growing nicely”, and there are mangoes to pick from the trees. As the months go on, Vasco Limo tells me “things are improving slowly”; she now has solar panels. But there is a new fear: Covid-19. Rates are relatively low in Mozambique, with 16,521 cases and 139 deaths recorded by December, but there is little testing, so it’s hard to know the virus’s full extent. While Ndedja is Covid-free, fear of it hangs over the camp.

The cyclone caused $3.2bn worth of damage, equivalent to 22% of the country’s gross domestic product, or half its annual budget. The government was forced to borrow $118.2m from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to respond to the emergency, taking its national debt to a crippling $14.78bn.

For the people of Beira, the disaster defied logic. Many fell back on the beliefs of their ancestors: according to some residents, the cyclone was whipped up by a god or a demon; the winds were “a beast whistling”; the floods were caused by a “big animal with seven heads”.

Scientists have a different explanation. While the role of the climate crisis in Cyclone Idai is still not fully known, experts believe there are links to rising sea-surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean. “We are getting a much higher frequency of high-intensity storms,” says Jennifer Fitchett, associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Idai was followed by Kenneth, another category 4 cyclone that hit the border of Mozambique and Tanzania six weeks later. (Two severe tropical cyclones in one season is very unusual for the Mozambique Channel.)

Just last week, on 30 December, Chalane, a powerful tropical storm, brought heavy rain and wind once again to Beira. The eye of the storm was north of the city, where it destroyed buildings and lifted roofs, including that of the Nhamatanda rural hospital. More than 26,000 households were affected; 265 families are now in temporary accommodation.

“There is absolutely no doubt that when there is a tropical cyclone [such as Idai], then because of climate change the rainfall intensities are higher,” says Friederike Otto, acting director of the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. “Also, because of sea level rise, the resulting flooding is more intense than it would be without human-induced climate change.”

However, the severity of Idai’s impact is explained less by the intensity of the storm and more by the fact that it struck one of the nations least prepared to deal with one. In Beira, there are a number of grand villas and commercial zones, with wide tree-lined streets, formally planned by the Portuguese under colonial occupation (Mozambique became independent in 1975). Elsewhere, thousands live packed together in poorly made buildings. The average income is less than $3 a day, barely enough to buy 2kg of sugar and four loaves of bread. The Grande hotel, opened in 1955 for wealthy white tourists from Southern Rhodesia (then a British colony, now independent Zimbabwe) who never materialised, is now a slum. Families even live in the skeletal spiral staircase, taking advantage of the shade.

The biggest employer is the port. Established at the end of the 19th century, it is an important entry point for goods into Mozambique and beyond. Southern Rhodesia made Beira its strategic harbour in the 1930s and that legacy is still present in rail, road and pipeline links. There are some businesses – finance and microcredit – but the economy is largely informal, the men fishing and the women selling fruit, vegetables and secondhand clothes from market stalls.

Daviz Simango has been mayor of Beira since 2003. In 2014, he stood before international donors at the launch of the Beira Master Plan and warned of the danger caused by the climate crisis for a city just above sea level, with decaying sea defences and a disappearing belt of the mangroves that provide a natural defence against coastal flooding. Simango outlined an ambitious plan to boost Beira’s resilience by 2035 with a green infrastructure project that included planting 7,000 trees and re-establishing mangroves. The cyclone damage is now forcing Simango, the government of Mozambique and a retinue of global experts to come up with more urgent solutions for what he calls “Mozambique’s most climate-vulnerable city”.

Fishermen left to right: Sacura Alberto, Jose Joao Chimoio, Antonio Silvero Namangero, Damiao Victor and Pedro Peter

“Every day I see how the climate is changing,” Simango says when we meet. “The sea is rising, the waves are stronger and bigger. I watch how the temperature changes. It is not like it was before.”

Cyclone Idai struck when western countries were considering how to help poorer nations on the frontline of climate change. Yet at the UN COP25 climate change conference in Madrid in December 2019, policymakers failed to agree a mechanism for wealthy countries to provide financial assistance. “Imagine a poor person is standing outside a fancy restaurant,” Simango says. “You walk by that person, go into the restaurant and order food. When you have finished eating, you go outside and say to the poor person, ‘You are paying.'”

When I visit, Beira still looks as if it has been through a war. Only 30% of the city has been rebuilt: 48 schools are without a roof. “When it rains, children go home,” Simango says. “There is no school.”

Mozambique did not go on to have a total lockdown like other countries, though schools, restaurants and churches were closed after the first cases of Covid in March. Today, the country is slowly returning to normal life. The inhabitants of Beira are worse hit by the fallout from the cyclone than the global pandemic. The Central hospital smells of damp and there are water stains on the walls. This is where the enormity of the disaster first became apparent. Doctors working in an already underfunded system treated 450 cases in three days: fractures, compression injuries, puncture wounds from debris, bluish skin and chest pains caused by near drowning.

Even now, the neonatal intensive care unit is strewn with rubble and unusable. “We have to look after those babies in the paediatric unit,” says Boniface Rodrigues, a senior doctor and hospital spokesman, pointing out that lives may have been lost as a result. “We are doing our best, but it is not neonatal intensive care as it should be.” The operating theatre was only restored eight months after the cyclone.

Security guard Netto Dezzimata, outside the now derelict rooms at Beira's sailing club, where he worked

The sailing club on Beira’s Macuti beach is open when I visit, though guests can sit only on the terrace and must bring their own drinks. The restaurant, outdoor gym and boat shed are still in ruins. Netto Dezzimata, 38, a security guard who helped to evacuate the club after the restaurant manager read the cyclone warnings online, explains how he survived as the club crumbled around him. He spent the night under a concrete archway with his arms locked around a pillar. “I couldn’t see where the sea ended and the land began – all I could see was water – but, as the security guard, I had to maintain my position.”

The Golden Peacock, however, is pristine. Also known as Chinatown, this gated complex near the airport includes a five-star hotel (with a Chinese restaurant, spa and casino), villas for rental, shops and an amusement park for children. Peacocks – believed to be the first birds imported into Mozambique – roam among manicured lawns and lily ponds. Owned by AFECC, a large-scale Chinese enterprise with interests including a diamond mine in Zimbabwe and an emerald mine in Zambia, as well as hotels and supermarket chains across Africa, the Golden Peacock is popular with Chinese businessmen. Guests from the hotel and the villas sat out the cyclone in the ornate reception area. The damage – although significant, with broken roofs on all the buildings – was repaired within a month.

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Nearly 92,500 people are still homeless, living in makeshift shelters in 71 post-cyclone camps across four provinces. The struggle now is to find a new kind of life. Antonio Silvero Namangero, 38, used to catch an abundance of fish with just a canoe and a net – redfish, corvina, shrimp, crab, prawns and, best of all, grouper. “You could sell it for a lot of money,” he says when we meet.

Like many men in the close-knit Beira neighbourhood of Palmeiras 1, he was a fisherman, as was his father. He sold his catch to restaurants, owners of gated mansions and in the market. It meant he could send his five children to school and grow his business. His first canoe made him enough money to buy a second; a second canoe meant he could hire two men. “It was a good life and we were really happy,” says Namangero, whose goal was to own his house.

Then the cyclone destroyed his home and canoes, as well as those of many other fishermen. “People were taking the wood to build fires,” he recalls.

He is settled in Mandruzi camp, run by NGOs including Unicef, Care and Oxfam, an hour’s drive from Beira. Here, Namangero and his wife have turned to agriculture – encouraged by NGOs as a practical way to build independence. Their shelter sits on a plot of land with magnificent plants that dwarf his younger children: potatoes, melons, maize and beans. The heat is brutal.

“I miss the birds, the breeze, the waves,” Namangero says. “In the evening I used to gather with friends and we would build a fire and start frying fish. Here, there is only cabbage. I am suffocating: first, because there is no food and no options; second, because it is so hot and airless.” I ask if he sees himself as a farmer or a fisherman. “A fisherman,” he replies.

Jose Joao Chimoio, 37, who is also living at the camp, shows me fish he caught on a day trip to Beira. “I wanted to remind the children that their father used to bring back fish. Right now, he brings nothing.” The fishermen’s aim is to make enough money from farming to buy a canoe, which costs up to GBP180, and “start living a normal life again”.

But farming has its drawbacks. “You might spend six months farming but end up with only six bags of rice,” says Amadaeu Wilson Ibraim, 40. “And those six bags of rice don’t last very long. With fishing, you fish, and then you eat or sell what you fish. It’s more immediate.”

Namangero, Chimoio and Ibraim offer to show us the beach where their canoes were destroyed. Later that day, they catch a bus to Beira, where we meet them on the seafront. The first thing they do is run into the sea, not caring about their clothes. We stand on the beach watching them jump, swim and splash. It’s Namangero’s first taste of the ocean for eight months. “It is amazing,” he says. “I feel like a bird, flying.”

He still can’t afford to buy a new boat or fishing nets, and nor can Ibraim and Chimoio. This is the reason they are still in the camp, trying to grow food. “More people are coming to live here because it does not flood, and there is electricity,” Namangero says.

There is another unwelcome surprise.

We visit a farm near Ndedja planted with maize, melons and banana palms. We look closer and see things moving – big, yellow and black. The crops are alive with locusts, thousands of them. “There will be hunger for the family,” says Palmira Mussa, 39, who has five children and runs the farm with her husband, Gorge Adjapi, 59. Locusts are already devouring huge parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, and experts believe the swarms are another result of climate change. “The soil is wet and locusts like wet environments, so they are producing a lot compared with previous years,” says Armando Zacarias, 28, from Kulima, a local NGO working with Oxfam to help camp communities grow food. Experts have since confirmed it as the worst plague of locusts in east Africa for 70 years.

Mayor Simango aims to build “Beira Back Better”, which includes developing a sanitation system, improving drainage facilities and building safer schools. This is an ambitious goal: many of Beira’s citizens lacked these facilities before the cyclone. Simango says that, so far, donors have pledged 25% of the total cost of $888m.

“Cyclone Idai taught us many lessons,” says Carlos da Barca, 47, deputy administrator of Dondo, a district bordering Beira. “We have better tools for weather forecasts, better ways to inform our citizens. But that is all we have: the power to inform, not to respond.” Today, Mozambique is still ill-equipped to avert catastrophe. Poverty, scarce resources and lack of investment to combat the climate crisis continue to threaten millions of lives. “While we can predict tropical cyclones days in advance, early warnings only help to save lives if people have somewhere safe to go,” Dr Otto says.

Aid agencies argue for disaster preparedness – strong defences against the worst of what is to come. There are low-tech conservation solutions: preserving grasslands, restoring forests, planting mangroves. But the world’s major polluting countries also need to make sacrifices for distant threatened nations. The IMF has told rich countries, which have created the lion’s share of the warming so far, that they must do more to help. “Rising temperatures would have vastly unequal effects across the world, with the brunt of adverse consequences borne by those who can least afford it,” it said in 2017. And, of course, in the past nine months, the climate crisis has fallen down the political agenda, sidelined by Covid.

I ask Chiramswuana if she ever has nightmares about Cyclone Idai? “I have dreams,” she says. They come even when she’s awake. “It’s like something playing in front of your eyes, like when you watch TV. I don’t like it, but it stays there, what happened. I don’t feel angry,” she adds. “I feel sad.”

o Sally Williams travelled with Oxfam. For more on the charity’s work with communities hit by Cyclone Idai, go to tinyurl.com/yajktrh6.

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