Cyclone Idai: Counting the costs and looking to the future.

The worst of Cyclone Idai seems to be gone now. For the record, Cyclone Idai is a tropical cyclone that swept inland from the Mozambican Indian Ocean and savagely buffeted Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. The human loss has been huge. The survivors face a highly uncertain future, to say it mildly. So what are the other costs?

At the time of writing, the human loss has been estimated to be over 500. I spoke to a colleague who lost 9 relatives: an uncle and 8 of the uncle’s children all swept away.

Everything that makes people human has been destroyed. Roads, communication infrastructure, schools and buildings, livestock and grain reserves, crops in the field, you name it. The emotional trauma is unbelievable. It is really overwhelming, but we must contemplate the future.

On the Zimbabwe side the political drama that happened in the aftermath was something uniquely Zimbabwean. For a country of only 14 million, Zimbabwe’s acrimonious political environment is amazing. Everything is a political struggle: including presiding over a disaster; whose narrative carries sway; who gets there first; who gets the most dramatic photo to post on Twitter. The opposition was there pretending to care. The ruling party was also there, trying to project an aura of competence. The political and bureaucratic class were a failure from the word go: why in the name of all that is holy were the people not evacuated before the storm hit? They just come across as opportunistic, navel-gazing busybodies, our politicians.

The future? That’s an even harder task. Luckily, there has been an overwhelming outpouring of international assistance. The present needs will certainly be taken care of, but the future is uncertain. “Building back better” is the catch-phrase in disaster management. But can it be attainable in Zimbabwe? How do we build better, more effective early-warning systems? More importantly, how do we build better, more effective disaster preparedness institutions to manage the same?

The problem lies in Zimbabwe’s fragility. It is politically fragile, economically on edge, and culturally in a flux. We are in a transition period, no doubt about that. How we manage the situation in the next 5 years will determine the history of this country. In the meantime, we have to live and pray for another day.


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