IN the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, which ravaged Manicaland and parts of Masvingo, leaving more than 140 people dead, thousands homeless and scores injured, government’s lack of a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the devastating impact of natural disasters has come under the spotlight.
By Chipa Gonditii/Nyasha Chingono /Tinashe Kairiza
This comes amid reports that a rag tag rescue mission was only deployed to the affected areas 48 hours after the storm struck. The Civil Protection Unit, tasked with the responsibility of mitigating the impact of natural disasters, was allocated only US$2,335 million in the 2019 national budget and was thus grossly under-resourced and ill-prepared.
As the cyclone gathered momentum and advanced towards Zimbabwe from neighbouring Mozambique, President Emmerson Mnangagwa flew to the United Arab Emirates, a visit he cut short to tour the disaster zone. Mnangagwa, who flew to Chimanimani aboard the presidential helicopter this week, suffered a backlash of criticism for failing to prioritise the humanitarian disaster, which government has since declared a state of emergency. Government channelled RTGS$50 million towards coordinating rescue and relief operations.
Mnangagwa received a sombre welcome in the eastern town of Chimanimani on Wednesday, where he assured distraught villagers that government stood ready to offer assistance. The fierce cyclone, described by the United Nations (UN) as the most devastating weather-related disaster to have ravaged the southern hemisphere, left a trail of destruction in Chimanimani and Chipinge districts, after a torrent of flash floods swept away entire homesteads, schools, roads and bridges.
The storm also ravaged Mozambique where almost the entire port of Beira was swept away. Reports say 90% of the city was submerged, with Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi expressing fear the death toll could reach 1 000.
Although early warnings of the impending catastrophe were announced at least two weeks before the cyclone pulverised the eastern province of Zimbabwe, government, through the ill-equipped CPU only deployed a rescue mission on Sunday, 48 hours after Cyclone Idai had struck, flattening bridges, schools and villages. After deployment, the army failed to access affected areas because the vicious storm had demolished roads and bridges.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), the impact of the cyclone will be felt until March next year as thousands of people will need food aid. This has raised questions around the efficacy of government’s disaster prevention, mitigation, response and recovery strategy. The CPU, which is constituted of representatives from several line ministries, the Environmental Management Agency, the military and police, has particularly come under scrutiny, following its initial lethargic approach to the devastating cyclone.
A source privy to the workings of the poorly resourced CPU — which meets only four times annually — said that in the absence of a natural disaster at district level, most district CPUs in Manicaland only convened urgent meetings “in the midst of Cyclone Idai”, to coordinate search-and-rescue operations.
While the CPU has a head office in Harare, it does not have a presence at district level where it is chaired by district administrators and provincial level where it is headed by provincial administrators, most of whom have no expertise in disaster management.
Given the damage inflicted on Mozambique before the cyclone hit Chimanimani, the Zimbabwean government has been criticised for failing to move people living near riverbanks and low-lying areas to higher ground.
“The government should have deployed the army and the CPU in the districts before Cyclone Idai hit Zimbabwe to move people and also to spread information. Evacuating people would have saved lives. Some of the victims did not receive enough education and were taken by surprise when disaster struck,” a government official said.
WFP country representative Eddie Rowe, who was also the acting UN country resident coordinator when the cyclone ravaged Zimbabwe, this week told the Zimbabwe Independent that “more could have been done” by government and the CPU to save lives.
“In hindsight, you could expect that more could have been done. We know that in terms of information, the meteorological department started putting the alerts over a week before Cyclone Idai hit the ground. How did the communities, the local authorities, propagate these alerts to communities? The communities would have been encouraged to either evacuate or establish contingency plans so that when the cyclone hits, yes they will damage assets but the ultimate goal would be to save lives. So you would be able to save as many lives as possible,” Rowe said.
“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 coordination to show that preparedness measures were put in place.”
The Independent his week toured the eastern province, navigating through roads damaged by the devastating cyclone, to get to Skyline — a makeshift camp that was hastily assembled to coordinate search-and-rescue operations.
At Skyline, the military were making use of three helicopters — two of which were hired and flown by private pilots — to search for survivors.
Owing to the harsh weather conditions, characterised by heavy wind and torrential rain, it took the army close to 72 hours to begin rescue missions. Operations were called off at night in the absence of adequate lighting.
Sources close to the rescue operation told the Independent that the CPU, which should have been at the forefront of conducting operations, was frantically trying to mobilise resources, as well as equipment from corporates to clear damaged roads which were left impassable well after the heavy rain had subsided. “You must understand that the CPU has a very small budget which does not cascade to district level. This is what complicates carrying an effective rescue mission such as this one. All the resources at the disposal of the CPU are mere donations from corporates and well-wishers,” said an official.
Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri admitted this week that government was ill-prepared to deal with the destructive cyclone.
Government, she said, had failed to anticipate the scale of damage that Cyclone Idai could cause. “I had not anticipated Cyclone Idai to be so bad. We had heard that floods were coming and a cyclone, but we had not moved or done anything to help ourselves. I think we as people of Manicaland province have learnt a lesson and next time we will protect lives and urge people to move to know what will happen, and we move into camps together with the government’s help,” Muchinguri said.
CPU director Nathan Nkomo did not respond to questions sent to him. The Independent sought to know whether the body was adequately equipped to attend to the disaster, and how similar situations can be addressed in future.
Nkomo told parliament last year that the CPU was running on a shoestring budget with annual allocations averaging $3 million against a requirement of $10 million. Most survivors who spoke to the Independent said the cyclone caught them by surprise.
Most victims were sleeping when disaster struck, leaving little or no room to manoeuvre to safety.