On 15 March 2019, an intense tropical cyclone did hit a land at Beira, Mozambique. The cyclone also brought severe winds and rain to Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Across the region, the storm has been so severe that it has been extremely difficult to get help to the people who need it.
The Tropical cyclone Idai has made headlines across southern Africa throughout the month of March. Lingering in the Mozambique Channel at tropical cyclone intensity for six days. The death-toll in both Zimbabwe and Mozambique is steadily rising – but the full extent of the damage is not yet knowable, as floodwaters are still high and conditions on the ground difficult. Roads, villages, and suburbs have completely washed away.
As Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe try to pick themselves up following devastation from Tropical Cyclone Idai, the role of climate change is becoming more and more relevant. The greatest impact of the storm was experienced on landfall causing flooding, excessive wind-speed and storm surge damage in the central region of Mozambique.
Adjacent countries of Malawi and Zimbabwe experienced severe rainfall, flooding and damage from the high wind speed. Madagascar also experienced bouts of high rainfall during the storm’s pathway to Beira. The flooding has left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and displaced across the region while the death toll has continued to rise.
Many people do not know what Climate change really amounts to, either due to unreliable sources or deliberate misinformation, which has led to a series of myths about climate change. Oxfam International, for example, observes that though climate disasters ranging from deadly heat waves to hurricanes in various parts of the globe are normal, the resulting devastation is alarming.
“Climate hazards are natural events in weather cycles. We’ve always had hurricanes and droughts, flooding and high winds. However, we are currently witnessing a scale of destruction and devastation that is new and terrifying,” it says.
Cyclones that hit Zimbabwe have increased in the near past, a sign that climate change is fast taking its hold on the country. There was Cyclone Eline in 2000, Cyclone Japhet in 2003, Cyclone Dineo in 2017 and now Cyclone Idai, all with devastating effects.
In between, the country has experienced El Nino conditions that have resulted in several droughts. As a developing country with less resources to facilitate easy adaptation to climate change, Zimbabwe has to go the extra mile, especially when such disasters occur. A poor country with a long coastline, Mozambique is especially vulnerable to storms sweeping in from the Indian Ocean. More than 700 lives were lost during a devastating flood there nearly 20 years ago.
A huge international response saw the Royal Air Force send six helicopters to rescue survivors. Back then, the priority was to save lives. Another significant issue concerns the strength of cyclones, which pulls in the role of global warming.
Dr Fitchett explains that high sea-surface temperatures sit at the centre of high-impact storms while warmer seas mean there is more energy available for cyclones, which only form when the water reaches 26 degrees Celsius but raised temperatures are not the only catalysts; storms also need help from the Earth’s rotation to cause them to whirl.
The Deadliest Southern Hemisphere Tropical Cyclones on Record
Idai is among the deadliest Southern Hemisphere deadliest tropical cyclones on record. Using data from EM-DAT, the international disaster database, plus other official and unofficial sources, the 436+ deaths officially attributed to Idai so far would make it the fifth deadliest Southern Hemisphere tropical cyclone on record. As is usual for catastrophic storms, there is considerable uncertainty in these numbers.
The deadliest tropical cyclone on record for Mozambique is Eline of 2000, which hit southern Mozambique as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds on February 22, 2000. Eline dumped torrential rains on a region that was already suffering severe flooding from over a month of heavy rains, and the combined floods killed over 700 people in Mozambique, according to Meteo-France.
Eline also killed 12 people in Zimbabwe and 64 in Madagascar, bringing the storm’s total death toll to approximately 800. There is some uncertainty on how many of the deaths in Mozambique can be attributed to the flooding that came before Eline, though.
The January 13, 1903 cyclone that killed 517 people in Tahiti and surrounding islands is well-documented in a detailed history of tropical cyclones in the Pacific, the 2012 book Furious Winds and Parched Islands: Tropical Cyclones (1558–1970) and Drought (1722 – 1987) in the Pacific, by AnaMaria d’Aubert and Patrick D. Nunn.
The Climate Change Factor
The global temperature increase brings disastrous consequences, endangering the survival of the Earth’s flora and fauna, including human beings.
The worst climate change impacts include the melting of the ice mass at the poles, which in turn causes rising sea level, producing flooding and threatening coastal environments through which small island states risk disappearing entirely.
Climate change also increases the appearance of more violent weather phenomena, drought, fires, the death of animal and plant species, flooding from rivers and lakes, the creation of climate refugees and destruction of the food chain and economic resources, especially in developing countries.
With this level of devastation, it is important to ask why this climate shock has occurred. The reality is cyclone Idai is an example of extreme weather brought on by climate change. According to the UN IPCC 1.5C degree report, human activities have been responsible for approximately 1C degree increase in temperature globally since before the industrial revolution.
Hence, if we continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions at the same levels, we are likely to reach a 1.5C degree increase within the next 20 years or sooner. Research has shown that extreme climate and weather conditions were observed around the 0.5C degree increase mark.
The report states that “trends in intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extremes have been detected…” (IPCC 2018), and this increase in frequency and intensity will only continue to worsen as temperatures continue to rise. Moreover, scientific research has confirmed a link between cyclone Idai and heating oceans linked to climate change.
Experts said it was too early to draw specific conclusions from Cyclone Idai, but the rapidly changing climate meant the destructive power of such storms was only going to increase in the future.
Dr Friederike Otto, of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, said: “There are three factors with storms like this: rainfall, storm surge and wind. Rainfall levels are on the increase because of climate change, and storm surges are more severe because of sea level rises.”
Otto said it was important to help communities in the worst-hit areas become more resilient to storms. “The standard of housing, the size of the population and effectiveness of the early warning systems … these are the sorts of things we need to think about as we move into a world where these events become more severe.”
Climate change is extremely serious in the African context, with high levels of inequality, poverty, limited resources, environmental destruction led by transnational corporations and indebtedness to rich countries. Africa did not cause the climate crisis and most Africans have very low per capita emissions compared to Americans or South Africans, for instance. Yet Africa is going to experience some of the worst extremes of climate change and increasing temperatures.
South Africa is the 14th highest carbon emitter in the world. Our coal addiction is a big part of the problem. Energy imports from Mozambique were also disrupted due to the carnage of cyclone Idai and this contributed to Eskom’s recent rolling blackouts.
According to Taylor-Davis, South African team leader for 350 Africa said the people who are causing climate change — big corporations that burn fossil fuels and governments that support coal mining and the extractive industry –are not affected by it.
“The poor aren’t causing the problem, but they bear the brunt of climate change. They are suffering from drought, they suffer the worst in storms because they just aren’t able to build houses that can withstand storms or escape to higher ground,” Taylor-Davis told Daily Maverick.
Both Garcin and Taylor-Davis also agreed that climate change is unjust. Although President Cyril Ramaphosa recently launched the Good Green Deed initiative, which encourages South Africans to do one good green action per day, ordinary citizens are not the root cause of climate change.
It has been well documented that 71% of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by just 100 companies. Although Garcin acknowledges that it is important for people to reduce their carbon footprint, placing the onus of climate change on regular people is not only unrealistic, it is also dangerous.
Mozambique is a prime example of the inequalities of global warming. The country ranks 180 out of 189 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures education, economic prosperity and life expectancy. The country contributes a measly 0.14% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
According to statistics, at least half of the population of Mozambique lives in poverty, with the divide between rich and poor quickly becoming more extreme. A legacy of colonialism and civil war has left the country unable to protect itself against extreme weather and rising ocean levels.
“Looking at Beira, this was a city that was absolutely not prepared to deal with such an event, and there are multiple reasons for that, but one of the main reasons is that it’s a poor area,” said Garcin. “This cyclone is laying bare the fundamental injustices of climate change, and it’s something we need to talk about because this is just going to keep happening.
It is inevitable that people will connect Idai and climate change. It is always tricky to establish a direct causal link, but thanks to the evidence provided by a number of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including the most recent one from October 2018, we know that climate change is bound to increase the intensity and frequency of storms like Idai. At the very least, this crisis is a harbinger of what is coming.
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