ZIMBABWE has been hit by the deadly Cyclone Idai that has left a trail of destruction, killing over 100 while hundreds more are still missing. United Nations (UN) agencies have been making frantic efforts to provide assistance to marooned people in Chimanimani and Chipinge areas. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), the cyclone will exacerbate the hunger levels, hence drought relief programmes are set to continue until March 2020. Political reporter Nyasha Chingono (NC) sat down with WFP country representative Eddie Rowe (ER, pictured), who was the acting UN resident co-ordinator when Cyclone Idai hit the country. Rowe explained the UN agencies’ co-ordinated efforts to assist communities in the wake of the catastrophic cyclone. Below are excerpts of the interview:
NC: Has the government of Zimbabwe approached the UN for assistance in the wake of Cyclone Idai?
ER: We had a very constructive meeting with the department of the Civil Protection Unit yesterday (Monday) and we were informed that the government is going to launch a disaster appeal.
Already there was a press statement by government appealing for international support on critical needs. So the government disaster appeal is the instrument that all of us would use to mobilise resources to support these people.
On the appeal you can see clear needs, food, health, infrastructure needs, so that will give a clear picture on which each of us in our respective sector mandate will be able to develop a plan, mobilise resources. But I would say the danger here, which I am very much concerned about, is the urgency of the situation. They need more attention than just food. Our major aim is reaching these people with the much-needed assistance. So we don’t allow the situation to degenerate.
NC: What is your take on the government’s state of preparedness to deal with such natural disasters?
ER: In hindsight, you could expect that more could have been done and this is the reason we have been working with the government, CPU to enhance capacity on early warning, preparedness measures. We know that in terms of information the Metereological Department started putting the alerts over a week before Cyclone Idai hit the ground.
How did the communities, the local authorities, promulgate these alerts to communities? The communities would have been encouraged to either evacuate or establish contingency plans so that when the cyclone hits, yes, there will be damage to assets, but the ultimate goal would be to save lives. So you would be able to save as many lives as possible. I think that is where a lot could be done. Of course, we understand the financial constraints and we know that the CPU has developed a lot of capacity, but what was not too clear was if there was a structured co-ordination to show that preparedness measures were put in place.
NC: What steps have you taken thus far to assist affected the communities and have you come up with a contingency plan to ensure normalcy returns to those areas?
ER: We expect to have a first-hand report this week, but the good thing is a number of agencies have already started providing support.
The basic most important needs are shelter and food items as well as health. We had a very good meeting yesterday with the CPU, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef) have already dispatched teams. But the major problem is accessing these people because the roads are washed off, bridges are damaged. So we will see how best we can support the government.
We know that the government will be launching the disaster appeal. Now that should heighten awareness among development partners, the international community, to see the sort of support they can give.
NC: Is there a co-ordinated effort by UN agencies to provide assistance to people affected by the cyclone in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique?
ER: We are co-ordinating. But as you know, the hardest hit is Mozambique. Mozambique has a direct impact on Zimbabwe. About 60% of the commodities that we receive come through the port of Beira.
As you know, that port is completely ruined, roads from Beira to Manicaland are also destroyed. So what we are doing now is that we have set up an emergency response in South Africa where, for example, now we have deployed two helicopters to Mozambique because communities there are completely devastated.
Air service is the only means to reach these people. The head of vulnerability, analysis and mapping unit has been deployed to Mozambique to help assess the situation. We have the office of the humanitarian co-ordination, they have also despatched technical staff to help us co-ordinate our responses.
NC: What are the urgent requirements of these communities?
ER: I wouldn’t say food is not a priority; our biggest concern is not this immediate, but three weeks to one month. Our biggest concern is the ripple effects, for example, the economy of Chimanimani, Chipinge; they are a link to Mozambique. But Mozambique is completely wiped off. You begin to see the necessity of basic commodities which could lead to price hikes. These traders cannot get goods. So that’s where we are looking, at the ripple effects which are medium to long-term.
When Mozambique is troubled with roads, it becomes a very difficult situation here, too. There are engineers now that are on the ground to patch up the roads then we can reach out to these communities and provide the much-needed support. About 15 000 individuals, close to about 5 000-6 000 households that have been directly affected, so there is need for interventions that could cushion particularly livelihoods. There are things that we need to address immediately, but we also need to look at the long-term.
NC: Zimbabwe is currently facing a crippling drought and acute food shortages. In your assessment, how grave is the situation?
ER: This comes on the back of one of the most devastating climate-induced food insecurity in the country. I am sure you are aware of the food assessment that we did in January, Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) and the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis to zoom in into the categories of communities that are food insecure.
There are 5,3 million people in need of food aid. We started off our lean season assistance and as of last month we managed to reach about 700 000 and now this month we are looking at scaling it up to 100 000. So it is a daunting task.
We have what we call a three-phased approach of response. You have the immediate response and the immediate-term to ensure that every man, woman, boy or girl in Zimbabwe can afford food at any given time throughout the year. So this is a three-pronged approach we are embarking on. So between now and June, we are looking to reach 1,7 million and this is for the most severe food insecure people. These people fall under the IPC phase 3 and phase 4.
We are at the penultimate phase of hunger and there we assess about 2,9 million people fall within IPC phase 3 and phase 4. We are talking of chronic food insecurity. This is quite a huge number, recognising that government also has a food deficit mitigation programme.
In Zimbabwe, 80% of the rural areas have agriculture as their livelihood opportunity. On top of that, 80% depends on rain-fed agriculture so any disturbance on the climatic conditions will have a direct impact on crop production.
NC: How much is required to solve the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe?
ER: It is difficult to ascertain the need. The needs are diverse; you have food needs, water and sanitation, and infrastructure needs. I believe when the joint assessment team returns, they will give us the clear magnitude of the problem. After that, we will be able to quantify the need that we have.
On top of my head, if we are looking at food assistance of, let’s say 15 000 people, it’s not going to be just for one month. We will be looking at six months. Luckily, organisations like IOM are providing non-food items like cooking sets, pots and other things.
According to the initial report, the priority needs now are food, shelter and non-food items. We also need to build the infrastructure because it is the vehicle upon which we can reach the people. Then you have a chance to support them.
Yesterday we heard that the government deployed the military, a couple of helicopters and the mission was to evacuate people we were injured from the places that were affected. We are looking at how we can access these people. Thanks to two United Kingdom-based engineering teams, they have already started work, rehabilitating roads.
NC: How much has been raised so far in the UN flash appeal that was launched last month?
ER: I must say the UN has its own internal systems where, in terms of an emergency, we quickly would be able to draw from the emergency response package. So when the (UN) secretary-general approved the US$10 million in response, this is response to the climate-induced drought and out of that the food sector received an allocation of US$4,9 million.
Now for our response to the increased food insecurity in the country, our budget was about US$90 million. Thanks to our generous donors, we have been able to mobilise about US$53 million so we have a shortfall of about US$38 million. This is what was planned before the situation deteriorated. So it will take the Joint Assessment Mission report for us to go back to the drawing board, to recalculate what our needs would be for the rest of the year. Our normal cycle of assistance usually stretches from October of the previous year to March of the following year, so which means under normal conditions we should be wrapping up our assistance but we will extend assistance up to June.
And the reason why we have extended up to June is because the ZimVAC vulnerability assessment committee will be conducting a food security assessment in May. That will inform us of the levels of food insecurity from June. The most important livelihood opportunity is agriculture, but with the current situation it means there is nothing until next year. So there is a strong possibility to support families until March next year.
NC: Does the US$3,2 billion government figure for emergency assistance tally with your figure?
ER: Frankly, the government has an obligation to every citizen in Zimbabwe. We are focussing on the neediest people. When you look at our support, it’s just a microcosm of the government’s support. So, for example, we are in about 32 districts in the country.
When the government launches an appeal for food assistance, they have to cover all the 60 districts. So it will be incorrect to compare the government’s appeal with our own because the scale is completely different. We target the most severe food insecure, but as for government, they have to cover a more significant scope of support
NC: I understand that the WFP since the start of the year has been giving vulnerable communities cash instead of food aid. What is the logic behind this strategy?
ER: Before we provide assistance, we do a thorough analysis on the basis of the needs of the people, the type of assistance and how we provide the assistance. We do all of this taking into account the cost efficient manner that will leverage maximum impact. We have done a national market assessment on the functionality of the market. We found out that in most of these districts, markets are functioning well.
If markets are functioning well and if we have to provide assistance in the most dignified manner, providing them with cash allows them to have a variety of choices on the type of food they would prefer. The second consideration is the economic landscape we are operating in. The value of the bond has depreciated to a level where, if we provide cash, very few households would be able to sustain themselves.
We did the analysis and came to a conclusion that providing US dollars cash would enable households to make choices on the commodities they want to procure, the purchasing power would allow them to buy as much food and we give them the dignity they require. It is costing us less to provide cash than if we were to buy commodities.
NC: What is the WFP doing to reduce urban poverty?
ER: It is good that you used the word urban poverty because there is a fine line between how we qualify the problem of food insecurity. Quite rightly what we are seeing is urban poverty. This is because of high unemployment and lack of social services. All this has a direct impact on the ability of a household to get food.
While we are moving into assistance, it is part of a comprehensive intervention to address urban poverty. So what we have decided is to do a pilot programme in Epworth where we are now providing a livelihood ration of about US$9 per person to almost 20 000 residents. These are the most vulnerable residents. The disabled, the elderly, women-headed families who are at the bottom of the community. These are the communities who are marginalised, who would have constraints in fending for themselves. So it is a pilot.
We are also doing a lot of research to establish what will be the best approach in assisting urban residents, not only in their food needs, but their entire livelihood needs. As we pilot this project, we are working with other partners like the WHO, Unicef, the Ministry of Social Welfare because it is a multidimensional problem. What we hope to do in the next six months is trying to scale up resistance mechanisms.