Record-breaking storm wreaks havoc in southern Africa

ISHAAN THAROOR This article was published in The Washington Post.



African News Agency


BEFORE this weekend, cyclone Freddy was the Earth’s longest-lived tropical storm. As Freddy made landfall in central Mozambique on Sunday for a second time in the space of a few weeks, lashing a stretch of southern Africa with heavy rains and winds, it may also have solidified its status as one of the strongest tropical cyclones observed in the southern hemisphere. That’s the growing assessment of the world’s meteorological community. Freddy emerged on February 6 off the coasts of Indonesia and Western Australia, travelled thousands of miles west across the Indian Ocean before striking the island of Madagascar on February 19 and then making landfall in Mozambique on February 24, where it flooded towns, devastated crops and plunged communities into darkness. It looped back over the Mozambique Channel and picked up energy again over its warm waters before returning to the African mainland. Freddy’s longevity appears to be matched by its sheer relentlessness. “How much energy a storm churns through is calculated through a metric known as ACE, or Accumulated Cyclone Energy,” a report by my colleague, Matthew Cappucci, explained. “It reflects both a storm’s intensity and duration. Storms harvest such energy from warm ocean waters and expend it through their winds and by generating precipitation.” He added: “As at Saturday evening, Freddy had tallied somewhere in the neighbourhood of 86 ACE units, surpassing the record of 85.26 set by hurricane and typhoon Ioke in August to September 2006. That’s more ACE than 100 of the past 172 Atlantic hurricane seasons – not individual storms, but entire seasons’ worth of ACE.” The ferocity has had a grim human impact. Death tolls are unclear, given the difficulty authorities have had in reaching storm-hit areas, but dozens have died in Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi. The commissioner of the Department of Disaster Management Affairs, Charles Kalemba, said on Monday that 99 were killed in Malawi. The Red Cross said deaths were largely due to flash floods, landslides and the collapsing of flimsy mud homes. UN officials counted at least 27 dead in Mozambique and Madagascar, with at least 8 000 people displaced and close to two million people affected in Mozambique alone. Authorities expect the figures to rise. In Mozambique's Zambezia province, the storm brought down critical telecommunications infrastructure, hampering rescue and aid efforts. Mozambique has experienced a year’s worth of rainfall in the space of a few weeks as Freddy swirled between the African mainland and Madagascar, raising the risk of a worsening cholera outbreak in the region. “Malawi is experiencing the deadliest cholera outbreak in its recorded history. The country is also struggling to respond to a polio outbreak and ongoing Covid-19 cases across the nation,” Rudolf Schwenk, the country representative for the UN children’s agency, said last week. “Resources are limited, the health system is overburdened, and health workers are stretched to their limits.” On Monday, the UN’S humanitarian office warned that relief organisations urgently needed additional resources to respond to the emergencies. Still, the destruction wrought by the cyclone is not of the scale seen, say, in 2019, when cyclone Idai killed more than 1 500 people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. “Freddy is having a major socio-economic and humanitarian impact on affected communities,” Johan Stander, of the UN’S World Meteorological Organisation, said last week. “The death toll has been limited by accurate forecasts and early warnings, and co-ordinated disaster risk reduction action on the ground – although even one casualty is one too many.” The ravages of cyclones like Freddy are expected to become a more common occurrence. Scientists believe that climate change is increasing the intensity of tropical storms, as warmer ocean temperatures fuel more wet, windy and destructive weather events. Countries like low-lying Mozambique are among the most vulnerable to climate change and least equipped to grapple with its effects. Climate campaigners have long pointed to its plight as an example of a nation whose population has played little role in warming the planet, but is disproportionately reaping the consequences of humanity’s surging emissions. At last year’s UN climate summit in Egypt, some wealthy Western countries pledged tens of millions of dollars in funding to Mozambique to help with loss and damage caused by extreme weather events, though activists say the contributions don’t go nearly far enough. At a UN Security Council session last month on the security risks posed by rising sea levels, secretary-general António Guterres warned of “a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale” as floods and coastal erosion uproot whole communities. Mozambique’s foreign minister, Verónica Nataniel Macamo Dlhovo, pointed to her country’s weathering of five tropical storms or cyclones in the past year as evidence of worse to come. She warned that coastal cities across Africa – from Lagos, Nigeria, to Casablanca, Morocco, to her nation's capital, Maputo – were facing disaster. “We are talking about people who have lost almost everything they have gathered during their lives,” she said. “If no urgent action is taken to protect these cities, they may disappear in the near future.”