Fátima António stared down at a flattened pile of wooden planks and twisted tin roofing where her neighbour’s home once stood in the rural village of Buzi, in central Mozambique.
The 23-year-old said the house had survived unscathed when Idai – the strongest ever recorded cyclone in southern Africa – barrelled across the region in 2019. But when another cyclone struck earlier this year, the small property was not so lucky.
Speaking to The New Humanitarian in April – three months after Cyclone Eloise hit – António said she felt her community had been left out of the recovery and rebuilding efforts that took place in the aftermath of Idai.
“We thought we had been forgotten,” António said.
As changing weather patterns linked to climate change trigger more intense floods and cyclones in Mozambique – the country fifth most affected by extreme weather in the world over the past two decades, according to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index – the government and its donors are trying to shift their response. Instead of picking up the pieces after each disaster strikes, they want to prevent the worst from happening in the first place.
There have been some notable initiatives: new infrastructure projects have reduced flooding in major cities; an improved early warning system alerts residents to impending disasters; and thousands of people have been resettled from low-lying, flood-prone areas to supposedly safer locations on higher ground.
But many of the initiatives come with catches and compromises, other projects need further investment, and rebuilding efforts are still limited in scope, leaving residents like António unable to adapt to future threats – something organisers of COP26 have called for urgent action on as the UN climate change conference gets underway this week.
Almost 500,000 people were affected by Eloise, which damaged and destroyed over 56,000 homes in January. Aid groups said the cyclone undid much of the “hard-won progress” they had made since Idai and underscored just how much infrastructure still hadn’t been repaired.
On a trip earlier this year to the central province of Sofala – where Buzi is located – government officials told The New Humanitarian they don’t have enough funding to implement large infrastructure projects on the scale needed to fully adapt to the climate crisis.
Other local residents described feelings of abandonment by the government, which has made climate adaptation a national priority but is bogged down by other conflicts and crises: from a high-profile graft scandal to the deadly extremist violence that has rocked gas-rich Cabo Delgado province.
“Everyone has to fight a war to stay here on Earth,” said Carolina Pracido, a mother of five who lost her home when Eloise swept through her neighbourhood in the port city of Beira, which lies on the Indian Ocean and is the capital of Sofala province.
In what follows, we explore four aspects of Mozambique’s climate crisis response, examining both their successes and limitations. Part one looks at the country’s early warning system; part two delves into flood defence projects in Beira; part three analyses resettlement initiatives; and part four takes stock of climate-resilient construction efforts.
Part 1: An early warning system and its limits – ‘We are really not very comprehensive’
Despite contributing relatively few pollutants, Mozambique is considered among Africa’s most vulnerable nations to climate change. That’s because of its long Indian Ocean coastline and its location downstream of nine major river basins. Droughts in the country are also a threat.
Though it is hard to pin individual weather events like Idai and Eloise solely on climate change, scientists say global warming has increased the intensity of rainfall during cyclone events, while rising sea levels have increased the impact of coastal flooding on populations.
“If we don't adapt, we'll have problems,” said Ana Paula Felicia Correia, an official at Mozambique’s National Institute for Disaster Management and Reduction (INGD). “Because [climate change] has come, and it is here to stay.”
Mozambique’s government has put various climate strategies in place over the past decade: A national mitigation and adaptation plan helped define the state’s main priorities, while a disaster management fund was created to help the government proactively budget for crises instead of reallocating funds after the fact.
Still, the government relies heavily on international aid and development organisations for funding climate adaptation work and for responding to weather-related disasters. And while several government agencies now work on climate initiatives, coordination has proved challenging over the years.
When two deadly cyclones – Idai in central Mozambique and Kenneth in the north – hit back to back in 2019, the government was criticised for reacting slowly. Though alerts were disseminated to residents via an early warning system, many were caught by surprise or had little understanding of what actions they needed to take to get to safety. Hundreds of people ended up losing their lives in the two disasters, almost 2.2 million were left in need of assistance, and damages totalled an estimated $3 billion.
The early warning system has since improved, according to Correia, who works for INGD in Sofala. The agency now alerts 250 risk management committees in Sofala alone through a text messaging system. Each committee has 18 members who use bicycles to reach communities and megaphones to transmit warnings. For those who are unable to hear warnings on television or radio, INGD has created a system whereby coloured flags are raised above neighbourhoods to indicate what kind of disaster is coming, and when it will arrive, Correia added.
In Praia Nova, a fishing community in Beira hard hit by past cyclones, 27-year-old Jimo José said he heard warnings on the radio and television prior to Eloise. “We [also heard] from the neighbourhood secretary, who walked around the area and went to houses to talk about it,” he said.
Researchers and aid organisations have credited the early warning system for saving lives during Eloise and Tropical Storm Chalane, which made landfall in December 2020. As well as alerting residents, the system reportedly triggered the evacuations of some at-risk communities.
Still, Correia said a lack of resources for training and equipping the risk management committees has limited what the system can achieve and the number of communities it can reach. “We are really not very comprehensive,” she said.
Though most residents in urban areas like Beira told The New Humanitarian they received warning messages before Eloise struck, the majority of people in rural places said they heard nothing.
Correia and other local residents gave several possible reasons for this. Rural areas don’t always have reliable cell phone coverage, while heavy winds can knock out communication networks. Many residents also lack radios, televisions, and mobile phones to receive warning messages.
From razed house to resettlement village: Ilda Alberto Rui Sardinha’s life after Idai
Distance is another problem. Villages located dozens of kilometres apart can be hard to reach for committee members, especially during the rainy season when roads get flooded. And even when committee members reach villages, residents may often be working in their fields.
Measures imposed on account of the COVID-19 pandemic made efforts to access communities even harder, according to Correia. When The New Humanitarian visited, buses were running at half capacity, curfews had limited people’s movement, and restrictions on gatherings meant large meetings were avoided out of fear of local law enforcement.
Correia added that it was particularly difficult to issue pre-Eloise warnings in resettlement sites, set up after Idai to permanently relocate residents of high-risk villages. “We still don't have resources to create committees in those camps,” Correia said. “The challenge is to… be able to enter [them] into the system.”
Meanwhile, just like with Idai, those who did receive warnings when Eloise struck complained of a lack of clear information about where to go to find protection, and a lack of resources to protect themselves and fortify their homes.
The warnings certainly weren’t enough to protect the property of José, the Praia Nova fisherman. “Eloise destroyed our houses, and we were totally out of work [for weeks],” he told The New Humanitarian while washing a bucket of freshly caught fish early one April morning.
Part 2: Flood defence in a frontline city – ‘Everyone in the neighbourhood would get sick’
Though few places in Mozambique – and the wider east Africa region – are as exposed to extreme weather as Beira, the country’s second largest city of 600,000 people is not taking the crisis lying down.
In 2014, local authorities approved a master plan designed to increase resilience to climate change and ensure Beira’s expanding population is accommodated in more elevated parts of the city that are less exposed to flooding.
Among several notable initiatives is a green infrastructure park that sits along the Chiveve river. Opened in December 2020, the park has improved the city’s drainage, while providing space for recreation.
A $120 million World Bank-funded project designed to renovate Beira’s outdated storm-water drainage system has also had a major impact. Eleven kilometres of canals were built, creating a spider’s web of waterways that now flow through the city. At the foot of the main channel is a retention basin that holds up to 170,000 cubic metres of excess water. At its head, floodgates allow the water to flow out to the ocean.
Finalised in late 2018, the drainage rehabilitation works – implemented by Mozambique’s Water and Sanitation Infrastructure (AIAS) in cooperation with the Beira municipality – is considered a success in the areas it covers, according to Bontje Marie Zaengerling, an urban specialist at the World Bank who worked on the project.
During Idai, Zaengerling said she received feedback from the ground that showed the drainage system held up and expelled large quantities of water and heavy rainfall, significantly reducing the flood’s impact. Still, those parts of Beira not covered by the system were hit hard by the flooding, while defences did not prevent catastrophic damage created by the winds, which reached more than 200 kilometres per hour.
João Antônio do Céu, a local businessman, said “water flooded everywhere” in his Beira neighbourhood after Idai struck. Roads were blocked, children couldn’t attend school, and diseases began spreading, Céu added. “We had a few [cholera cases], and everyone in the neighbourhood would get sick,” he said.
Efforts are now underway to extend the drainage system and implement further coastal protection works in Beira, which other Mozambican cities now sometimes consider the fortunate one in terms of the attention it has received from international donors.
But Beira mayor Albano Carige António told The New Humanitarian that getting funding for climate-related infrastructure – particularly from the central government – remains a challenge.
Sofala province has historically been an opposition stronghold, and there is a pervasive belief among local politicians and residents that the central government in Maputo withholds funds for political reasons.
When asked how much money the municipal government has received to support cyclone prevention and rebuilding efforts from Maputo, António gave a wry smile and held his fingers up in a zero sign.
Contacted by The New Humanitarian, Alfredo Salvador Mutombene, the director of communications at Mozambique’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, said budgetary allocations are disbursed to municipalities and provinces every year.
Mutombene emailed over an operating budget that states that Beira will receive around $4 million in 2021. However, he didn’t clarify if any of that was earmarked for climate-related projects.
More investment is also needed in Beira to maintain the existing drainage infrastructure, according to Zaengerling. She said Beira’s municipal sanitation agency, SASB, was given technical support and has demonstrated its ability to operate the system during Idai and other events, but she added that extra resources and continuous training for staff would be required for operations to be sustainable.
“These systems will only protect against floods when they're really operated correctly and cleaned regularly,” Zaengerling said. “[Beira authorities] have income from sanitation fees and property taxes but, compared to the needs, it is not enough. They're doing everything they can, but in a very difficult environment.”
One of the biggest maintenance challenges is the amount of trash thrown into the drainage channels by local residents, said Henok Chicumbe, a public relations officer for SASB.
Working in tandem with local communities, Chicumbe said the agency has recently launched an anti-littering campaign and has trained local residents on cleaning and unclogging the channels.
Céu, the local businessman, said he was one of the community leaders involved in the clearing project. “During the weekend, we train [young people],” he said. “We work for seven hours…. to avoid [the system] clogging.”
Part 3: A home on higher ground – ‘When we got here, it was all jungle’
Some parts of Beira are unlikely to ever be safe however much is spent on climate-resilient infrastructure. In the informal fishing settlement of Praia Nova, for example, ocean tides wash over some houses every day.
After Idai, Mozambique’s government relocated tens of thousands of people – many of them from Praia Nova – to dozens of resettlement villages on higher ground that is supposedly less prone to flooding.
The idea wasn’t new. For decades, flooding, droughts, and conflict have brought successive resettlements in Mozambique with competing claims of success and failure, according to scholars and researchers.
Ilda Alberto Rui Sardinha, a 26-year-old mother of two, moved from Beira to Mutua resettlement area after Idai destroyed her home. She said the remote location – around 60 kilometres from Beira – wasn’t easy to adjust to. “When we got here, it was all jungle,” she said.
Some residents of resettlement sites praised the initiative for removing them from harm's way. Others, like Sardinha, said the new spaces had flourished as residents “transformed it into a city”.
But the initiative has detractors too. While some Mozambicans have been resettled close to their original homes – allowing them to keep cultivating their fields – others were moved far away from their land and have struggled to secure new plots.
The remote rural locations of sites like Mutua mean fishermen from places like Praia Nova have lost access to the ocean, while urban workers from cities like Beira have been pulled away from informal jobs that helped them make ends meet.
The situation has forced many Mutua residents to travel back and forth between their new homes and places where they can earn a living. Commuting can take hours each day, and most said they make the journey by foot or bicycle.
Some aid groups and development organisations have stepped in to offer livelihood support at the resettlement sites, said Brenda Hada who works as a communications specialist for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Hada said UNDP set up temporary income-generating activities in the sites and incentivised residents to create saving and loan groups. With the income, residents then established new livelihoods, from hairdressing and tailoring to plumbing and beekeeping.
For some fishermen, UNDP also helped set up fish farming collectives, which have both advantages and disadvantages, said Tomás Rodrigues Tomás, a resident of Savane resettlement site, which is several hours by car from his hometown of Beira.
Rearing fish in a man-made pond means no encounters with the crocodiles that lurk in rivers and fewer risks than are found in open water, Tomás said. But the upfront cost of fish farming can be difficult to shoulder, he added.
The collectives have to purchase baby fish and eggs; spend money feeding them; and replace those that don’t survive. The whole process takes time: Despite procuring fish in December 2020, they were still growing when The New Humanitarian visited Savane in April.
“We were given the explanation that this [job] would be for my whole life and my whole family would [benefit],” Tomás said, adding: “I still can't say it's good to farm fish because I still haven't reaped the benefits.”
Though resettlement areas are supposed to be safer, residents aren’t fully insulated from the impact of storms and cyclones. Around 9,000 families from different sites had their tents and shelters either fully or partially destroyed by Eloise, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM.
After losing her Beira home during Idai, Sardinha watched her new home – a makeshift tent built with materials she found lying around Mutua – collapse during Eloise. One of her neighbours, meanwhile, died after a wall fell on top of them, she said.
Part 4: Building back better – ‘What will I rebuild my house with?’
Things improved for Sardinha after Eloise. As a single mother, she qualified for one of 200 new houses constructed in Mutua according to disaster-resilient standards through a project involving UNDP and the government’s department for post-cyclone reconstruction.
The home is built to withstand powerful winds: locally made bricks have wiring every two layers to prevent cracking; a reinforced roof made of imported iron is held down by threaded nails and screws; even the plaster and paint are designed to resist the elements.
After losing so much over the past two years, Sardinha said she was “grateful to God” for the house – which can accommodate an average family of five – and to the organisations that helped her.
A resilient school has also been built in Mutua in the hope that future cyclones will not disrupt education like Idai and Eloise did. Both displaced and host communities in Mutua were involved in the construction process, according to UNDP’s Hada.
The UNDP project is not the only one promoting resilient construction in Mozambique: Tens of millions of dollars have been spent by different organisations on rebuilding and retrofitting schools, markets, clinics, libraries, hospitals, and government buildings in recent years.
Still, the overwhelming majority of people across the region are living in poorly built houses with roofs pinned down with bricks and tyres. And even in Mutua, most residents were living in makeshift tents when The New Humanitarian visited.
Projects like UNDP’s have proved hard to scale up. Challenges include the logistics of sourcing high-quality materials – which often come from neighbouring South Africa – and an absence of skilled workers to construct new homes.
At $8,000 per house, replicating what the agency has constructed is also well beyond the means of most rural Mozambicans, though residents of some resettlement sites have been trained to use resilient techniques with local materials such as mud, bamboo, and tarpaulin, according to Hada.
As the new cyclone season gets underway this month, many Mozambicans in Mutua and other vulnerable areas will still be bracing for the worst. “What will I rebuild my house with?” Pracido, the mother of five whose property in Praia Nova was destroyed during Eloise, said in March. “[The government has done] nothing. They didn't help.”
With additional reporting from Ed Ram and Orlando Sábado Matendjua. Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.