Tropical Cyclone Idai, Climate Change, and the North-South Divide

Tropical cyclone Idai, which made landfall on Beira, Mozambique on March 14 of this year, with heavy rains continuing until March 20 – was one of the worst tropical cyclones on record affecting the Southern Hemisphere. The storm caused devastating damage in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi – with a death toll of hundreds, if not thousands of people, and a further 3 million affected. Strong winds and extensive flooding destroyed roads, bridges, dams, houses, schools, and health facilities, as well as submerging large swathes of agricultural land. Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi fears that 1,000 people may have died in his country alone. 90% of Beira, Mozambique – a city of more than 500,000 people – has been destroyed by floodwaters.

What role does climate change have to play in Cyclone Idai? UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mami Mizutori, has argued that ‘Cyclone Idai is a clear demonstration of the exposure and vulnerability of many low-lying cities and towns to sea level rise as the impact of climate change continues to influence and disrupt normal weather patterns.’

Although the link between the occurrence of Cyclone Idai and climate change is unclear, climate change certainly had a role to play in the overall devastation that the cyclone unleashed. There are three ways in which climate change exacerbated Idai’s effects. First, a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour, which makes rainfall more intense – Idai produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days, which equated to more than two feet of water in parts of the region. Second, the region has been suffering from a considerable drought in recent years, as per climate projections of overall drying in the region. The hard earth was unable to rapidly absorb water, increasing the risk of flash flooding. And third, sea levels are about a foot higher than a century ago, which worsens the effect of coastal flooding.

The world’s poorest regions are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Climate change is not some future hypothetical – it is already happening now, and disproportionately afflicting those who had the least to do with creating it. The wealthiest regions of the world tend to be located in the extratropics, while many of the world’s poorest people live near the equator – thus giving the wealthiest regions an advantage in terms of temperate climate. Further, wealthy countries are better able to prepare and cope with climate-related events than low-income countries.

And yet, the world’s wealthiest countries are not doing enough. The Green Climate Fund, a United Nations program which was established in 2009 to raise a significant portion of an overall funding goal of $100 billion a year by 2020 for climate change adaptation and mitigation in poor countries, as has so far received only $10.3 billion in pledges. The unfairness of the situation is stark, particularly when one considers that Africa contributes the least to global warming in both absolute and per capita terms. Africa accounts for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, in comparison to the largest emitters like China, the US, and the EU which account for 23%, 19%, and 13% of global emissions respectively. And yet, in spite of its low emissions, Africa is one of world’s most vulnerable regions when it comes to climate change.

The affected region is now dealing with the devastating aftershocks of the cyclone. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has designated Mozambique a level three emergency, placing it on par with Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. Cholera, which usually spreads through contaminated water – is now also a major concern. At least 1,428 people have been reported to be infected in Mozambique.