A cyclone’s wake-up call on climate adaptation

This month’s massive storm in southern Africa highlights the need for helping poorer nations build up resilience against flooding.

People pass on a road damaged by Cyclone Idai in Nhamatanda near Beira in Mozambique

A cyclone that struck the southern African countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi earlier this month has left a devastated landscape. It also left questions about how to better prepare for similar powerful storms predicted by climate scientists.

Cyclone Idai caused hundreds of casualties, perhaps many more, and widespread flooding. One reason was a tidal surge of 13 feet or more in Mozambique, where half the population lives along a 1,550-mile coastline. The port city of Beira, whose population had been about 600,000, is reported to be 90 percent destroyed.

The region is already one of the world’s poorest. Many of its residents eke out a subsistence living. Emergency aid is arriving, and recovery efforts will soon begin. But as climate change contributes to a future of rising sea levels as well as possibly larger and more powerful storms, the disaster throws a new spotlight on the need to help the world’s most vulnerable prepare.

“The devastation wrought by Cyclone Idai is yet another wake-up call for the world to put in place ambitious climate change mitigation measures,” says Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for southern Africa.

Many wealthy countries already are making plans to adapt. Housing along coastlines is being built or raised on stilts that can resist damage from flooding. In the Netherlands, for example, some waterfront homes sit on floating platforms that rise with the tides. In some places barriers have been constructed or are being planned to hold back storm surges.

Through better planning, a few developing nations are becoming more resilient. In Bangladesh, for example, schools are being constructed on high ground. During storms, they also serve as shelters. More accurate mapping can help determine which areas are most likely to flood. And early storm warnings for remote populations are now more available via text messaging to basic cellphones.

One prevalent idea is to create more parkland near population centers to absorb floodwaters. That remains difficult in countries such as Mozambique where cities often grow largely unplanned. Areas prone to flooding are settled by those with nowhere else to live. In Beira, the city center was one of the least affected areas. It benefited from the first stage of a World Bank project that had upgraded its drainage system.

International climate accords, such as the 2015 Paris climate agreement, as well as the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, include pledges from wealthier nations to help developing countries protect themselves from rising sea levels and other effects of climate change. But funding and the pace of new projects are lagging.

Climate change adaptation, of course, should not come at the expense of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. And in developing countries, any resilience strategy must include the raising of living standards. Reducing poverty and improving education will contribute greatly to the self-sufficiency of these countries to withstand weather disasters like cyclones.

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