22 Mar 2019 Story Disasters & conflicts

Cyclone Idai: why disaster awareness and preparedness matters

Foto de: Municipio de Beira

Beira, one of Mozambique’s oldest cities and the country’s fourth largest, is in ordinary times a spectacular port city overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Founded in the 19th Century by the Portuguese, the city’s landscape is dotted with buildings which evoke memories of colonial architecture in the world’s second largest Lusophone country.

But these are no ordinary times in Beira. On 14 March 2019, the city was struck by the devastating Cyclone Idai, the largest tropical cyclone to hit the country since Jokwe which made landfall in 2008.

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Aid agencies estimate that 90 per cent of Beira was destroyed by the cyclone. [Photo credits: Beira Municipality]

“Since Friday, and until earlier today, we did not have any access to mobile phone networks. Most buildings had their windows shattered, mobile communication masts and electricity poles were also uprooted. School buildings are accommodating those displaced by floodwaters,” says Samuel Fenis, a resident of the city’s Macurungo neighbourhood.

The storm, which has also affected neighbouring Malawi and Zimbabwe, has complicated the lives of Beira’s population - estimated at about 500,000 residents—as the coastal city has for years been susceptible to climate-related disasters such as violent storms and recurrent floods.

So far, Mozambican authorities say that at least 200 people have died from the resultant damage after two large rivers, Buzi and Pungwe, bust their banks. But the actual toll will only become clearer after the waters subside in the three affected countries.

“Beira is pretty much paralyzed, with many residents going hungry, and without food and shelter. Road transport links between Beira and other towns such as Maputo have been cut off as the floods damaged the main highways, making them impassable,” Fenis told UN Environment.

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Beira’s economic infrastructure, including warehouses, storage silos and supermarkets were destroyed leaving behind damaged goods. [Photo credits: Beira Municipality]

The impact of Cyclone Idai clearly demonstrates the need to develop better awareness and emergency preparedness tools to strengthen the resilience of local communities to the devastating impact of disasters.

“The cyclone is yet another reminder on the need for more and urgent investment in ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation to reduce the human and financial toll of natural disasters. Sound environmental management, climate change impacts and disaster responses are closely interlinked and require a more systematic and comprehensive approach to disaster risk management,” says Juliette Biao, UN Environment’s Regional Director for Africa.

In October 2018, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction released a report which highlighted the staggering financial impact of climate-related disasters. In the period 1998-2017, disaster-hit countries reported direct economic losses of US$2,908 billion of which climate-related disasters accounted for US$2,245 billion or 77 per cent of the total.

Following the 1984 Bhopal gas leak, UN Environment took steps to prevent disasters or reduce their impacts by developing the Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level Handbook.

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Shelter is an immediate need for Beira’s residents but healthcare, clean water supply and sanitation are also high priorities. [Photo credits: Beira Municipality]

“The handbook helps communities prevent loss of life, damage to health, well-being and livelihoods, minimize property damage, and protect the environment. It is applicable regardless of the nature of the environmental emergency—whether it is an industrial accident, a natural disaster or a combination of events, such as might occur following an earthquake or tsunami disaster, or a storm such as Idai,” says Saidou Hamani, Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts Coordinator in UN Environment’s Regional Office for Africa.

The handbook aims to motivate and empower local leaders to prepare for emergencies more effectively and to build resilience.

As the leading global environment authority, UN Environment developed in 2015 the Second Edition of the [Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level] APELL Handbook. The handbook emphasizes the importance of an integrated multi-hazard approach at the local level and emphasizes the importance of multi-stakeholder and all-of-society engagement.

UN Environment, the leading global environmental authority that sets the environmental agenda is working to address natural disasters, industrial accidents and human-induced crisis by supporting dozens of countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.