Idai and Kenneth sound a climate warning to the world

Diary: Becky Anderson, managing editor, CNN Abu Dhabi, revisits Mozambique in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai

Powered by automated translation

One of the hardest parts of covering any horrific story can be the moment you step on a plane and leave it behind. As journalists we often find ourselves at the heart of disasters and tragedies when the difficulties and pain they produce are at their most acute, and then we return to the comfort and normality of our lives. It is both a privilege and a curse. Simple things like running a bath or sitting down for a meal remind you that, somewhere, the people whose lives you briefly glimpsed and shared are continuing to struggle and suffer.

In March I was part of a CNN team covering the aftermath of Cyclone Idai. Entire towns and villages were submerged during the Category two storm, which made landfall shortly after midnight on March 15, bringing 109 mph (175 km/h) winds and relentless, torrential rain as it moved towards Zimbabwe and Malawi.

We had travelled around 70 miles to the west of Beira, the port city that bore the brunt of the brutal storm as it tore into Mozambique’s coast, to the rural community of Mutatara. There the sheer scale of the problem facing aid workers was clear.

It was two weeks after the cyclone’s destructive impact, and search and rescue teams had set up a makeshift operation at Beira’s airport. There they were working to identify people away from the city who had received little or no help.  From there we had travelled with a MercyAir helicopter team making an emergency fuel drop to Mutatara - at the frontier of the aid effort.  Our pilot told us that his crew had already made two drops out into isolated communities with small amounts of food, just enough to keep the community alive.

Flying above the brown, still sodden landscape, downed trees and homes torn to shreds were a stark reminder of the water’s destructive force. People in this region saw the water rise as much as 16 metres above its normal level during the colossal downpour. One volunteer leader told me: “This is where the truth is.”

Little more than a month later, the country was lashed by another violent storm, Cyclone Kenneth. The country and the world braced itself for another hammer blow to Mozambique’s traumatised people.

The record-breaking cyclone struck the north of country, less densely populated than that hit by Idai.  Mass evacuations and the fact that rainfall was less heavy than that of Idai meant that the impact was not as severe as some had feared. Nevertheless, almost 50 people lost their lives in Mozambique and the island of Comoros. Thousands more homes were destroyed or severely damaged, along with vital facilities and infrastructure. Inevitably though, the world's attention moved on.

Now aid agencies are working to keep the story in the headlines.  The full extent of Idai and Kenneth’s impact has now become clear: Idai alone killed at least 750 people and impacted millions more in Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi. Aid agencies reported in April that 90 per cent of the city of Beira had been ruined and that much of its telecommunication infrastructure was destroyed.

The flooding brought a rise in cases of cholera.  Highly contagious, authorities have scrambled to contain the disease’s spread.  There was also an increase in the number of malaria infections, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Save the Children believes close to a million children were affected by the cyclone and many are now living in tents, schools or temporary settlements with limited access to clean water or sanitation.

To help those affected, the charity is providing emergency shelter, food and healthcare in Mozambique. It also has a child protection and psychosocial support team working there.

In this photo provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), badly damaged communities are seen from an aerial view, in Macomia district, Mozambique, on Saturday, April 27, 2019. Authorities have urged many residents to seek higher ground in the wake of Cyclone Kenneth as rain lashes the region. (Saviano Abreu/OCHA via AP)
Badly damaged communities are seen from an aerial view, in Macomia district, Mozambique, on Saturday, April 27, 2019. AP

That team has found children showing signs of severe psychological stress. Its reports are heart-breaking. During its investigation, the agency asked children to draw their homes before and after the cyclone and to describe what they had witnessed. In their pictures, children drew devastating images of adults and children crying and people drowning in floodwaters.

One such child, ten-year-old Faizal, drew himself playing outside his colourful home before the cyclone.  Then he drew a second colourless picture, with two children crying "mama" and a person lying on the ground, apparently decapitated by a corrugated iron sheet.

Such stories are, Save The Children says, frighteningly common.  They also tally with what we saw on our visit to rural Mutatara during the weeks after the Cyclone hit.  There, by a river, our guide had showed us where the floodwater would have risen. You could see mud clinging to tree branches high above our heads. It must have been terrifying.

The boat crews we had met there were making ten to twelve trips a day across the dangerous river, ferrying aid to the 1,200 families on the other side. Those families had nothing. On the opposite bank the vegetation was flattened, and rocks were exposed. As the water receded, the crossing was becoming ever more difficult and dangerous.

One of the boat crew told us that after the flood there was no food, no shelter, nothing. After the aid arrived, the people at least had tents, some food and a water purification system, he said.  But more than 40 people had lost their lives in the one small community we visited.

Extreme weather events such as Idai and Kenneth are becoming more frequent. In March, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that urgent action is needed. According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s 2018 State of the Global Climate report, millions around the world are at risk from extreme weather and sea level rises due to climate change.

Returning home from Mozambique was a reminder of the luxuries many of us take for granted. But it was also pause for thought. The UN Secretary General warned that no country or community is immune from climate-related devastation. As journalists it is up to us to ensure that the stories of those impacted by disasters such as this one are told; but it is also up to us to help make sure that the warnings they contain are heeded.  This is a global story, and one that none of us can walk away from.

Becky Anderson presents Connect the World on CNN International, Sunday-Thursday at 7pm UAE