Responding to Cyclone Idai requires a more robust approach
By Peter Kamalingin, acting Director of Oxfam Pan Africa
On 14th March 2019, Cyclone Idai hit parts of Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique with 170km per hour winds, massive rains and flooding. It was the worst tropical cyclone on record to hit Africa. More than 1,000 people died – we will never know the final toll – and 1.9m people were affected, losing homes, livestock and crops and livelihoods. Bridges and roads and buildings and sanitation systems were demolished. More than 4,000 cases of cholera have been reported. The presidents of Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique all declared national disasters.
African Union falls short on its commiment to "African solidarity"
On 20th March, the African Union Commission Chairperson Mr Moussa Faki Mahamat announced a $350,000 fund to support the three governments and the SADC (Southern African Development Community) secretariat. He also dispatched a High-Level Assessment Mission to the three countries and called on all member states and the international community to provide urgent relief assistance. Uganda, Namibia, Tanzania, Angola, South Africa and Morocco immediately answered his call with aid. SADC on its part gave the three affected countries US$500,000, and on Thursday 11 April 2019 launched a $324 million regional humanitarian appeal for funding.
While commendable, the SADC and AU’s efforts fall far short of what should be possible to live up to the stated commitment to “African solidarity”.
Is the African Union able and ready to face massive natural disasters?
The AU Commission Chairman showed proactive leadership. However, it came without a clear framework or mechanism on how to respond in coordination with the SADC Secretariat, which has also publicly acknowledged that it has no capacity to respond to disasters of the scale of Cyclone Idai.
This gap has drew public attention and calls for AU’s leadership to forge a common African response to the cyclone. The initial $350,000 pledge prompted critics to question the AU about how ready and able it is to respond to such disasters. They cited 2014–15 Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the 2016 El Niño droughts in parts of Eastern and Southern Africa as events that highlighted the economic and social costs of natural disasters against the scale of humanitarian relief that is required to help people cope with them.
Preparing for the future...
The long-term response to the current disaster will take time to evaluate, but it is already clear that a comprehensive African response is needed and that much can be learnt from this disaster. Stronger Africa leadership is needed to help people and to “build back better” from Idai, with a comprehensive reconstruction and reintegration program across the affected countries. We know that climate change will make natural disasters such as Cyclone Idai become more frequent and stronger. We need to invest in more expertise – most especially local expertise – to better prepare and manage our humanitarian responses into the future. The Africa Union Commission, the regional economic blocs, member states and, indeed, Africa’s citizens must rethink a strategy to improve the African system to prepare and deal with natural disasters, as well as the processes toward recovery. This must put people at the center of planning, especially women and girls who are most vulnerable in such cases.
There are important lessons to learn and opportunities to grasp from analyzing the AU’s role in the Cyclone Idai response, for regional and international actors alike. Ensuring that solutions and improvements are “home grown” will provide leadership legitimacy for all stakeholders. A stronger AU leadership should be reflective of the Common African Position on Humanitarian Effectiveness adopted during the 2016 Ordinary Sessions of the Executive Council and the African Union Assembly, which laid down an emphasis on humanitarian effectiveness in Africa.
... where climate change hits the poorest the hardest
Climate-related disasters are becoming more prevalent and more harmful – both economically and in human terms, with poor people hit hardest. Therefore, we need a continental disaster prevention and response program that builds up stronger early warning systems and is entirely more effective and efficient. The Africa Risk Capacity (ARC) group, an initiative by the African Union to insure against climate induced disasters through risk pooling, should broaden its current focus on droughts to include risk financing products for disasters caused by cyclones and flooding.
That way the AU will be able to strengthen itself, and reduce its over-reliance on the international humanitarian agencies because local efforts can be typically quicker and ultimately more sustainable. Member states need to own these efforts and offer a pooled climate mitigation and adaptation fund to give real substance to such a program – and ensure that it’s one that puts local people at the center.