A mayor in Mozambique had a flooding master plan. Then came the cyclone.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File
Flooded buildings are seen in Beira, Mozambique, in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, March 23, 2019. The city is building up its flood defenses to prepare for future storms.

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When Cyclone Idai ripped through central Mozambique in March 2019, it was a brutal setback for the coastal city of Beira. Its mayor had worked for years with international donors to prepare the city’s flood defenses. Beira had started building a waterfront park and added water retention basins to handle floodwaters during cyclones and other extreme weather events. 

The cyclone killed at least 598 people in Mozambique and more than 130,000 had to flee their homes. But the preparation in Beira hadn’t all been in vain. The city’s new drainage canals reduced flooding in some neighborhoods and allowed residents to move back to their homes. 

Why We Wrote This

Preparing cities for climatic risks is a priority for developing countries like Mozambique. A 2019 cyclone was a lesson in the promise and limits of adaptation.

Since then, money and expertise have poured into Mozambique after donors pledged $1.2 billion for post-cyclone recovery. Some projects have yet to break ground, but others are starting to improve the city’s defenses against heightened climate-related risks in the future. The hope is that by making Beira more resilient, cities in other developing countries can learn from its example. 

And the waterfront park is finally open to the public. “This was the brainchild of the mayor,” says Bontje Marie Zangerling of the World Bank. “He used to tell us stories of how for decades the area along the river was dilapidated, always flooded and crime ridden. Transforming it was a really important dream of his.”

When a huge cyclone whipped toward central Mozambique in March 2019, Daviz Simango was worried, but he wasn’t surprised.

As mayor of the coastal city of Beira, Mr. Simango had seen extreme weather events become more and more frequent, causing floods that overwhelmed his city’s aging trash-choked canals. He knew climate change was to blame and that his city needed to bolster its flood defenses. 

For as long as he’d been mayor, Mr. Simango, a trained civil engineer, had been working toward this goal. He had drawn up a master plan for making the city and its people flood-resistant by 2035. He’d tapped money and expertise from international donors to rehabilitate seven miles of colonial-era drainage canals. The city had also built a new wastewater treatment plant, started work on a major park, and scooped out massive water retention basins around the city to hold floodwaters.

Why We Wrote This

Preparing cities for climatic risks is a priority for developing countries like Mozambique. A 2019 cyclone was a lesson in the promise and limits of adaptation.

That day in March 2019, as Cyclone Idai’s 105 mph winds shrieked over Beira, Mr. Simango wondered if it would be enough.

In many ways, Beira’s attempts to bulk up its flood defenses posed an urgent question: How far could a poor city in one of the world’s poorest countries protect itself against climate change? And what lessons might it offer to other parts of the world that face similar threats? 

“We want to avoid being in a vicious cycle of having to rebuild over and over, and then having it destroyed” by extreme weather events, says Bontje Marie Zangerling, a senior urban specialist at the World Bank who has worked on the bank’s projects in Beira. 

When Albano António Carige awoke the next morning, much of Beira, a city of half a million people, was underwater.

Beira looked like it had been stripped for parts, says Mr. Carige, a city councilor. He was barely out of bed that morning when Mr. Simango was at his door, asking for keys to a city council car so he could drive around town and assess the damage.

In the days that followed, Mr. Simango was often spotted in the streets, his shirt sleeves rolled up and collared blue shirt half unbuttoned and wet with sweat.

“He was working a chainsaw, chopping the fallen trees in the middle of the street,” recalls Maria Carlos Pedro, a Beira resident. “His relation with everyone was the same. There was no difference. With him it was like that.”

A city of husks

But Beira’s rebuilding would mean more than just clearing rubble. Flooding had overwhelmed the city’s new canals, sending surges of water through its neighborhoods, while high winds had battered its buildings. Aerial photos showed tin roofs and tree branches poking out of a soup of murky brown water. The Red Cross estimated that 90% of the city was damaged.

As the floodwaters receded, Beira became overnight a city of husks – skeletal building frames and piles of rubble.

“We have been building this city more than 100 years, and in a few hours, everything went out,” Mr. Simango told NPR in an interview after the cyclone.

For Beira’s mayor, who had spent years preparing for a knockout storm, Cyclone Idai was a brutal setback. Across Mozambique, at least 598 people died and more than 130,000 had to flee their homes; Zimbabwe and Malawi also suffered major destruction.

But the preparation hadn’t been in vain. Take the city’s new drainage canals that overflowed when the rains fell: Neighborhoods abutting the canals suffered less flooding overall and the floodwaters receded more quickly, allowing residents to mop up and move back.

For Selemane Alberto, who lives in Munhava, an area where storm drains had been improved before the storm, the difference was striking.

“In my neighborhood you would not walk a few steps without stepping on water, but [after Idai] it was different,” he says. “As much as it rains, you walk without having to take off your shoes.”

But the storm also clarified how much more needed to be done. While the extent of flooding was less than in previous storms, the cyclonic winds crumpled entire neighborhoods, peeling off roofs and sending trees and power lines crashing through buildings. “If there was no wind,” Mr. Simango said at the time, “maybe we could survive.”

The United Nations called Idai one of the worst weather events ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Suddenly you have a natural event that reveals all the problems – it’s the moment of the revelation,” says Lizardo Narvaez, a senior disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank, who works on the bank’s projects in Beira. “It’s not that the things weren’t like that before. They were. But now you have this momentum and everyone sees what needs to be addressed.”

Mr. Simango already knew well why action was needed. “Climate change is here,” he told The New York Times in 2018, a year before Cyclone Idai. “Things are changing in the city.”

Build back better

In the weeks and months after the storm, money and expertise poured into Beira. At a conference held in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, in June 2019, international donors pledged $1.2 billion for post-cyclone recovery.

“There is a need to build back better, to look at infrastructure, resilience of communities in a different way,” Noura Hamladji, the U.N. Development Program’s deputy regional director for Africa, told the conference.

For Mayor Simango, that meant investing in better housing in Beira, so buildings wouldn’t collapse in cyclone winds. It meant expanding the canal system to informal shack settlements where drainage remained spotty. It meant fortifying the city’s sea walls and finishing a major urban park, which would serve both as a natural flood defense for the city and a public space for its young people.

Two and a half years after the storm, most of those projects have yet to break ground, which experts say is typical for large reconstruction efforts. The World Bank says it expects to begin work on coastal wall reconstruction and new drainage canals in 2023.

But one project that has been completed is the new park on the banks of the Chiveve River. “This was the brainchild of the mayor,” says Ms. Zangerling of the World Bank. “He used to tell us stories of how for decades the area along the river was dilapidated, always flooded and crime ridden. Transforming it was a really important dream of his.”

The 108-acre park includes groves of replanted mangroves – a natural defense against flooding – as well as exhibition buildings, restaurants, a market, an open-air amphitheater, a botanical garden, and outdoor gyms. For Mr. Simango, it was a clean, spacious public area where city residents could spend time.

But the mayor never saw the project completed. In February this year, he suddenly fell ill. He was airlifted to a hospital in South Africa, where he died on Feb. 22, reportedly of complications from COVID-19. He was 57.

Only a week before he died, “we were talking about how we could finish potholes” and tar the rest of the city’s roads, says Mr. Carige, who replaced him as Beira’s mayor.

But despite Mr. Simango’s death, Mr. Carige says his predecessor’s legacy will live on in the projects he started to protect his city against climate change.

“[He] is why, if you see, Beira city had an extraordinary revolution,” he says.

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