A year after deadly cyclone, Mozambique now braces for virus

A year after hundreds of people were killed by one of the southern hemisphere's worst cyclones, Mozambique's port city of Beira is rebounding

Byandrew Meldrum Associated Press
March 16, 2020, 5:07 AM

JOHANNESBURG -- A year after hundreds of people were killed by one of the southern hemisphere's worst cyclones, Mozambique's port city of Beira is rebounding, but more than a million people need food aid there and in the surrounding countryside.

“A year ago much of Beira was flooded by Cyclone Idai. Buildings were inundated, homes collapsed or were washed away,” said Daniel Timme of UNICEF, who was in the southern African city at the time. “People were desperately seeking family members and hunting for safe shelter and food.”

Back in Beira now, he marveled at the progress made in the city, Mozambique's fourth largest, as residents repaired buildings and roads have been rebuilt. Seasonal rains have returned, but flood canals are channeling the waters away and the city center is bustling.

“There is a buzz of activity in Beira's port and marketplaces now,” Timme said in a phone interview. “There's a great spirit of resilience here, although significant problems remain.”

Poverty and hunger are at high levels in Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries.

“Under the surface, and on the fringes of the city, there are widespread shortages of food. We are finding that the levels of severe acute malnutrition are still high, especially among children,” Timme said.

Low-lying Mozambique, with a population of 30 million and a thousand-mile coastline on the Indian Ocean, is especially prone to climate change disasters, he said.

“The country is experiencing more extreme weather events, such as two major cyclones last year in central and northern Mozambique, while the country's south had a drought,” Timme said. Cyclone Kenneth roared in just six weeks after Idai, surprising a region of northern Mozambique rarely struck by cyclones.

“The food situation is bad. This year's harvest is expected to be poor. Already we see cases of severe malnutrition and we are distributing nutrition supplements, such as peanut butter paste," Timme said.

Now another health challenge looms large: the new coronavirus.

So far Mozambique has not recorded a case of COVID-19 but the disease is spreading across Africa. Neighboring South Africa on Sunday declared a national disaster after dozens of confirmed cases.

Mozambican health officials are increasing surveillance and working to improve hospitals.

But the high levels of malnutrition make many Mozambicans especially vulnerable. An estimated 1.6 million people don’t have enough to eat, according to UNICEF. More than 3,000 children under 5 have been diagnosed with life-threatening severe acute malnutrition in Beira and the surrounding plains of central Mozambique, Timme said.

The extreme weather disasters have left Mozambique, as well as neighboring Zimbabwe and Malawi, without adequate housing for thousands of families, according to Amnesty International. It called on the international community and the Mozambican government to "step up reconstruction ... in a way that truly delivers human rights.”

“One year after the cyclone hit Beira, the reconstruction is taking place, but it's growing very slowly and people are rebuilding, they've put a tin roof on their home and they are trying to replant," said Deborah Nguyen of the World Food Program. Heavy rains this year have reduced crops and continued food aid is desperately needed, she said.

Mozambique has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world, affecting 43% of children under 5, according to WFP.

“Mozambique is one of the countries that is the most severely affected by climate change," Nguyen said. "Because of Mozambique's location and because it's already one of the poorest countries in Africa, we can see that climate change is impacting very badly the poorest communities and it will keep happening.”

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events