On Thursday, March 14th, Cyclone Idai slammed into the Mozambican port city of Beira, destroying large sections of the city, before barreling towards Zimbabwe along one of the region’s most populous corridors. Idai was accompanied by strong winds and heavy rains which led to severe flooding as the rivers Pungwe and Buzi broke their banks. In the district of Buzi, thousands clung for their lives onto trees and rooftops, as their villages turned into ocean. While the rains have since subsided and the waters are receding, the risk of flooding remains, as dams upstream reach full capacity.
It is too early to gauge the magnitude of devastation. According to the latest figures from Mozambique’s National Institute for the Management of Calamities (INGC), 447 people have died as a result of the cyclone, 128,941 people are living in 143 accommodation centers and nearly 800,000 have been affected. However, these figures are expected to rise. The UN World Meteorological Organization projects that Idai will be among the worst weather-related disasters in the southern hemisphere.
“We didn’t expect it to be this bad,” an Idai survivor in Beira remarked. Apparently, neither did President Filipe Nyusi, who proceeded with a state visit to the Kingdom of Eswatini the day following the cyclone. The government did issue a “code red” emergency two days earlier, warning residents in the affected area to take precautions, but in a country where 46.1 percent, of the population lives in absolute poverty few can afford to evacuate without institutional support.
Details following the cyclone were slow to emerge. Communication networks and power lines were downed, road access was cut, and the government’s silence deafening. Watching the initial footage of a small team of South African rescuers, racing against time to save lives, one wondered: Where is the INGC and the Mozambican Armed Forces? Where are the international development agencies? What does a code red emergency actually mean in Mozambique?
Admittedly, few countries could adequately respond to a disaster of this magnitude—certainly not Mozambique, a country in the midst of a debt crisis, whose annual Gross Domestic Product barely tops US$12 billion. The debt crisis is the result of a combination of factors including an over reliance on the extractives sector, which has made the country vulnerable to fluctuating commodity prices; public borrowing for large-scale infrastructure projects; and extensive fiscal incentives to lure multinational corporations.
The discovery in 2016, of $2.2 billion in odious loans, illegally incurred by leading figures of the Frelimo government, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. According to a recent US indictment, $700 million remain unaccounted for, while $200 million were channeled as bribes and kickbacks to bankers and politicians. Frelimo’s attempt to retroactively legalize the loans at a significant cost to taxpayers, triggered a counter-movement by citizens under the hashtag, #eunãopagodívidasocultas (I won’t pay secret debts).
In an ironic twist, the International Monetary Fund and donors (who until then had tolerated—even promoted—a national bourgeoisie embedded in political patronage networks and allied to global capitalist interests), froze general budget and sector support. With little space to maneuver, the government imposed a series of austerity measures, including a civil service hiring freeze, and cuts to social sectors such as health, education, social welfare, sanitation and hygiene. As Idai, swept across Mozambique, it encountered a state weakened by an extractivist development model and captured by global capital.
Despite many government officials working around the clock under precarious circumstance to do what little they could, the vast majority of survivors ultimately saved themselves. In Beira, neighborhood WhatsApp groups were established, where family members could request information about their loved ones. In Maputo, more than 4500 volunteers, under the banner of Unidos por Beira, filled 76 containers of donations of non-perishable food items, hygiene products, clothing, bedding, utensils, medicines and construction material bound for Beira. And the left media platform Alternactiva, launched a crowdfunding appeal, to support reconstruction efforts.
However, for most survivors the struggle to live continues. Clean water is scarce, and the incidence of typhoid, malaria, cholera and diarrhea on the rise. Without homes, survivors must sleep in the open, unprotected from the elements, and from (sexual) violence. In the accommodation centers, they receive a single, daily meal of maize or rice, with beans, but outside, the price of food has skyrocketed. In Beira, a chicken meal is said to cost $25—more than the average per capita monthly expenditure. Desperate, residents have stormed warehouses, risking their lives, as police shoot live ammunition at them. Reconstruction not only requires the rebuilding of physical infrastructure but the reconstitution of social and economic life.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is coordinating the emergency response in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. More than a dozen governments and numerous international NGOs have pledged material and monetary support. However, former first lady and one time Minister for Education and Culture, Graça Machel, contends that support is inadequate, given the magnitude of the disaster: “We have a lot more than three million people affected and all the support is still insufficient… This is an emergency never seen in our history… It is good to say that this is a result of climate change… that it is the poor who will pay the highest price.” While tropical storms are not unusual during this period of the year, their impact has intensified as waters warm, vapor in the atmosphere increases and sea levels rise.
The environmental organization, Justiça Ambiental, has called on industrialized countries to repay their environmental debt. The INGC estimates that at least 474,154 hectares of crops have been destroyed. Small-scale farmers have lost their source of sustenance (food), their safety-net (livestock), and their savings (seed). In a country where 71.7 percent of the labor force relies primarily on small-scale agriculture to survive, climate reparations are one mechanism to compensate those who depend on nature, to enable the state to make the investments to protect them from its wrath. In the meantime, Mozambique’s Center for Public Integrity just hopes that any funds allocated to the INGC will be strictly audited.