Recognising and responding to the scars of Cyclone Idai

Six months after Cyclone Idai ravaged the eastern province of Manicaland in Zimbabwe, the devastating effects show that there is need for more work to do for the recovery. The survivors are still in dire straits, psychologically, emotionally and materially.

The traumatic events of 15 March 2019 remain etched on the minds of the survivors. Any rumbling sound, even light rain, sends them quaking, as a reminder of the tragic events of that ‘night of death’, when torrential rains and heavy winds claimed their loved ones and left them scarred.

Cyclone Idai resulted in a massive loss of life and injury, as well as destruction of critical infrastructure, including clinics, schools, roads, bridges, electricity base stations and houses. Manicaland province was the most affected, followed by Masvingo and Mashonaland East. The destruction also affected parts of neighbouring Mozambique and Malawi.

Government statistics indicate that 341 people died, 344 were missing, 183 were injured and 2213 people were displaced. Further, 230 dams burst and 20 000 livestock were lost. The loss of electricity compromised communication systems and hampered search and rescue efforts. The damage to communication networks means that many communities remain cut off from essential services. Despite government, with assistance from South Africa, having mobilized earth-moving equipment, some roads are still not passable.

This situation presented a public health threat of water and vector borne diseases, such as cholera, typhoid and malaria. Malaria deaths have spiked in Manicaland following the Cyclone. The trauma and loss has certainly led to mental health problems. The damage to infrastructure has impeded access to health services, raising the risk that people cannot access or default on treatment and care. In addition, local health services are understaffed and lack adequate medicines.

The magnitude of the disaster was greater than government alone could cope with. The international community, United Nations agencies, civil society organisations and individuals all contributed. For example, the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) with Medico International provided relief and aid to 171 households in holding camps in April to June 2019. This interaction also led to input to recommendations to the Civil Protection Unit and other inter-ministerial committees responsible for preventing disease outbreaks and ensuring provision of safe and clean water in the holding camps. Yet the high death toll from Cyclone Idai indicated the lack of disaster preparedness and planned mitigation by government, considering the earlier heavy loss from Cyclone Eline in 2000. Many lives could have been saved had the warnings for Cyclone Idai been widely disseminated in the local media to warn households and a response mobilized to evacuate people from the affected areas.

The situation continues to be precarious up to today. Manicaland Provincial Affairs Minister Dr Ellen Gwaradzimba noted that the situation in that province is now worsened by drought, affecting about 1.7 million people, in a situation where food reserves and fields were destroyed. Even while the response moves from an emergency to a recovery phase, the need to both learn from the experience and to sustain intervention is clear, including to respond to continuing vulnerability and to resettle internally-displaced people.

At a Provincial All-stakeholder Dialogue Meeting on Cyclone Idai in June concern was raised over the weak execution of the disaster emergency plans for evacuation and rescue and the absence of community-based emergency plans. For example, the reluctance of people to leave their ancestral land, even after being alerted of the disaster, was one factor that impeded evaluation. The dialogue meeting recommended that a government emergency response fund be set up; that communities be educated on first aid and disaster risk management in schools and in the community; and that campaigns be undertaken on disaster preparedness and mitigation.

While much effort has already been made in improving access to public and social services, resources are needed to restore roads, bridges, houses and sanitary facilities. Survivors need counseling and psychosocial support services. Displaced people and affected communities need new land for more rapid permanent resettlement and investments in their livelihoods and social services.

In all these inputs the planning, preparations, decisions and responses need to be people-centered. Putting people at the centre of the next steps, including in the planning for any future emergencies, is central to the response.

Itai Rusike, Caiphas Chimhete, Edgar Mutasa and Tafadzwanashe Nkrumah, CWGH, Zimbabwe