With thousands of people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi still in need of rescue in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, and nearly three million affected, meteorologist and Grist climate writer Eric Holthaus is pointing to the massive natural and humanitarian disaster as an example of the “fundamental injustice of climate change”.
The initial reports from the region have been “harrowing,” Holthaus notes. “The first aid workers to reach the hardest-hit areas found people clinging to trees and rooftops, awaiting rescue, with waters still rising. Social media posts from Zimbabwe showed people swept away on flooded roads, and aerial images in Mozambique showed countless homes underwater.”
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“It’s quite tragic what we’re seeing,” Hugo Du Plessis, an aviation operations official with the World Food Programme, told the Washington Post. “My pilots are telling me that people are still up in trees, but so are snakes. Imagine, having to choose between a snake and drowning.”
The Post says satellite images from the European Space Agency show a “vast inland sea” covering more than 1,000 square miles from Beira, the port town of 500,000 that took a direct hit from the cyclone and was 90% destroyed. “Though the waters are slowly receding, they are waist-level in many areas, and tens of thousands of people are still stranded, with aid agencies estimating that 400,000 people have lost their homes and will need to be housed in emergency shelters.”
Bloomberg reports simultaneously that regional drought is forcing Zimbabwe and Zambia to conserve water by reducing output from the Kariba hydroelectric dam from 1,476 to 890 megawatts. “This measure is being implemented in order to ensure continued availability of generation into the 2020 season,” the Zambezi River Authority said in a statement yesterday. “Meteorological projections are that most of the Kariba catchment is likely to continue experiencing below-normal rains for the remainder of the 2018-19 rainfall season.”
Holthaus cites the intensity of the rains during the cyclone, the severe drought that preceded the storm, and sea levels about a foot higher than a century ago as factors that connect the floods to climate change. But he points to a story that is even bigger, and traces an even longer history, than just the climate crisis. “Cyclone Idai is not a natural disaster. The storm was made worse by climate change, centuries of colonialism, and continuing international injustices,” he notes.
“It’s difficult for those of us in wealthier countries to imagine a disaster like this because we have built a society that is, in part, designed to protect us from extreme weather,” he adds. But in the area hit by the cyclone, “after years of drought, food supplies were already running low, with disproportionate impacts on children—the rates of child labor and forced marriages had been edging upwards. With hundreds of square miles of farmland now underwater, there is slim hope for a quick recovery.”
Holthaus notes Mozambique’s four-century history of colonial rule, slavery, and civil war, with the country now placing 180th out of 189 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Now, climate change is making recovery from a dire situation much more difficult: “These weather phenomena affect the government’s efforts to meet national priorities, especially food security, that are critical to poverty reduction,” then-Mozambique president Carlos Agostinho do Rosario told the Paris climate conference in 2015.
And while developing countries have spent years arguing for what Holthaus calls “climate reparations” to help them adapt to the impacts they face, rich countries have raised scarcely one-tenth of the US$100 billion they pledged to the United Nations Green Climate Fund by 2020.
“Wealthy countries must take responsibility for the unimaginable suffering we are inflicting,” Holthaus writes. “Today, as seen with Cyclone Idai, those most affected by climate change are those who have done the least to create the problem.”
That reality creates an immediate obligation for the international community to supply Mozambique and the rest of the region with food, water, shelter, and medicine, “and it can’t stop there. We owe it to the people on the front lines of climate change to break the cycle of extreme poverty we’ve helped perpetuate.”
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