April 26, 2019 / 4:51 PM / a month ago

Storm-struck Mozambique must revamp climate preparations: former first lady

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After Cyclone Idai blasted through the Mozambican port of Beira in March, former first lady Graca Machel took a helicopter ride over the city - and was astonished at the devastation.

FILE PHOTO: Graca Machel, member of the Elders speaks at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

“Beira was left literally with no one single roof that was not affected,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I was so traumatized that for a week I couldn’t make sense of myself.”

On Thursday, Mozambique was slammed by another storm, which spun into its northern coast, near Pemba.

Cyclone Kenneth was the most powerful storm on record to hit that part of the country, and came just six weeks after Idai caused devastating floods and killed more than 1,000 people across a swathe of southern Africa.

Impoverished Mozambique is no stranger to disasters - but as climate change brings fiercer and more frequent storms, droughts and floods, the country will need to rethink its preparations, Machel said in a telephone interview this week, before the latest cyclone.

“Mozambique has been hit ... every year by one aspect of climate change or another. One year it’s drought, another cyclones,” said the widow of former Mozambican President Samora Machel, who died in a plane crash in 1986.

The disasters, she said, “are affecting the most vulnerable of our society”.

“If you want to know exactly what that means, come to Mozambique, come to Beira. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another to see it,” said Machel, later married to South African President Nelson Mandela from 1998 until his death in 2013.

‘WHOLESALE RETHINK’

As Mozambique tries to recover from the latest bout of storm damage, it will have to find ways to rebuild homes and other infrastructure to keep them safer from growing climate threats - a challenge in any country under pressure to re-house families and get public services up and running again, she said.

“You need to have houses that can resist even a strong wind, that in certain areas are built in much higher places so waters don’t sweep (them) away,” said Machel, chancellor of the African Leadership University, based in Mauritius and Rwanda.

Beira city needs to be reconfigured, not just built back as before, she added.

The changes should, for instance, include development of a new drainage system to carry flood and storm water more swiftly to the ocean, she said.

Mozambique’s government was seeking assistance on that front from the Netherlands, a low-lying country with a long history of managing water risks, she noted.

Making Beira more resilient would also benefit neighboring Zimbabwe, Malawi and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo that rely on the city’s port, she said.

For that to happen, changing people’s behavior - as well as improving urban planning - would be crucial, said Machel, 73, a longtime advocate for children’s and women’s rights who has also worked on strengthening healthcare systems in Mozambique.

“We need to take a serious look at all aspects of life - starting with people themselves being more aware and organized to prevent human losses when these kinds of things happen,” she said.

But achieving this is difficult in nations with limited budget and expertise like Mozambique, which has “never experienced this level of complexity” of threats, she said.

“When I say we need support, I’m not talking about money only,” she said. “It’s a whole rethinking of what it means to have a viable community and infrastructure which can resist this kind of disaster.”

Machel and others are trying to build teams of experts who could advise on reconstruction efforts and ensure Mozambique heads into future storms better prepared, she said.

“In one sense I would say this is a tragedy,” she said of Idai’s impact. “But it can also be transformed into an opportunity if we take a heavy and deep look at what needs to be done, and not go for a quick fix.”

With more storms likely in Mozambique’s future, the country needs to become better prepared, she said.

“You don’t know when, but we know (the storms) will come back,” she said.

Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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