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A disaster in the midst of polarisation and Lessons learnt from Cyclone Idai

27 Mar 2019 at 07:06hrs | Views
The days 15 and 16 March 2019 will ever be etched in the memory of many of us Zimbabweans Sadly, so as we will relive the horror caused by an unusual stranger called Cyclone Idai.

Cyclones are not a strange phenomenon in Zimbabwe. At the turn of the new millennium, and to be precise, in the month of February in 2000, Cyclone Eline induced floods and winds left a trail of destruction in Zimbabwe, the most affected being Manicaland and some parts of Masvingo. Cyclones Japhet and Cyclone Dineo would add and exacerbate the situation. As for Cyclone Eline, the incessant rains lasted for more than two weeks. While infrastructure was destroyed, livestock and human lives were lost but not to the scale of Cyclone Idai.

What is in a name? IDAI can mean several things. Literally translated in the Zimbabwean context, it may be taken to be an exhortation for us to 'show love'. It may also mean a branch of a tree when a Ndau accent is taken on board. It can also be taken to mean 'if' and indeed, if we had acted, this wanton loss of life would have been minimised.

Many times, we have frothed in front of people; trying to endear with anybody who care to listen, that we love our country; we are patriotic and we will die for the motherland. But who do we die for when we ignore warnings from our own departments?  

Who in their normal senses would love cyclones? Why would we ignore a threat to our lives, if it is not just mere negligence and the inertia to act?

If we had acted, this calamity would not have been as adverse as it turned out to be. According to the Civil Protection Unit, Cyclone Idai resulted in 154 confirmed deaths while 187 were still missing, 4884 were displaced and 162 were injured (Civil Protection Unit Cyclone Idai Situation Report 22 March 2019). Among the missing are the 39 innocent pupils from Dzingire Primary School together with their Headmaster and three teachers. St Lwanga High School was not spared. Besides the infrastructure that was destroyed, the school lost two students while two others sustained injuries. The psychological impact of this tragedy will take long to erase.

When one of the veterans of the armed struggle, and one who has visited many war-ravaged nations, the Retired Air Marshall, Perence Shiri describes the destructions wrought to the communities of Chimanimani and Chipinge as resembling the aftermath of a fully-fledged war as a nation, we could not have in any way reduced the physical impact of Cyclone IDAI. But its impact on human beings, we could have at least minimized the damage. It is true that we continue to live during Noah's time, but for those that would have dared to listen and respond to the calls for evacuation, they would have been saved. I know as Christians we will say that is how the victims of Cyclone had been meant to die! Perhaps yes, but where we need to act, let us act.

It will take years for the community to recover. This will never be forgotten. Dani Fulani would say, ''It's God's case no appeal'' while Chinua Achebe would also say, ''Things fall apart.'' Indeed, things fell apart and it is God's case no appeal.
Lessons learned from the disaster
Ubuntu as a means to reconfigure the social contract
The disaster tested our ability as a country to showcase the principles and values of Ubuntu.  Zimbabweans have come to realize their common enemy. Our enemy is not external but internal. We continue to ask wrong questions and provide wrong answers. We have become legendary in majoring in minors and minoring in majors. Those countries that we call our foes are even extending a handy of assistance. Despite the evident polarisation brought to us by the politicians, this disaster will go down in history as a unifier. Humanitarian support came from all walks of life. The church, political players, the business community, civil society, humanitarian organizations, individuals and the international community all pooled resources to support the survivors of the genocide caused by the cyclone Idai and to provide decent burial to the victims. Indeed, various players pulled and pushed together like in a typical African society where UBUNTU principles, values and ethos are sacrosanct. The brotherly and sisterly touch was very clear.

What is evident to the response and coordination by various players shows that the broken social contract can be repaired. The tragedy was a convergence zone and it is up to Zimbabweans to cultivate this to unite for the betterment of our country. It presented a foundation for common convergence.

Provision of Social protection interventions
Cyclone Idai disaster taught us that unity of purpose can transform the lives of many. The level of commitment from all stakeholders is second to none. However, while various players came on board to assist the survivors of the disaster, it is important to point out that there is a need for comprehensive and sustainable social protection interventions to be put in place. The relief assistance being extended to the affected communities of Chimanimani and Chipinge is greatly appreciated. However, both the Government and humanitarian players should think beyond the relief assistance given the magnitude of destruction and loss of life experienced by the communities.  The extent and scope of the challenges are very clear. This community is traumatized. Building the resilience of the community is not a choice but an obligation. Such resilience cannot be built through relief approach alone but through developmental assistance. To this end, there is a need for sustainable social protection interventions to be put in place. Social protection in itself should meet the basic attributes such as predictability, sustainability, quality and consistency. It therefore follows that humanitarian agencies working together with the Government should start preparing a medium to long term stabilization programmes for the affected communities. There is a need for cash transfers to be put in place to enable the affected communities to recover.
It is common practice that relief is offered to the victims, and thereafter, people forget the trauma and psychological impact of disasters. We call upon the experts for psychological therapy particularly in the schools that bore the brunt of the disaster.

Capacitating and strengthening the Civil Protection Unit
When a disaster of this magnitude occurs, we spent a lot of time pointing fingers at each other.  It is no longer necessary to point fingers at institutions. We were as a nation a complete let down to the communities of Chimanimani and Chipinge. It is not true that the Department of Civil Protection lacks dedicated human resources. What may lack is adequate human and material resources. It is operating just like the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, measly resourced both in terms of human and material resources. But it has done very well by being national in outlook. The department of civil protection does not work as a single entity. It is national in outlook, and has done quite well in terms of cascading its operations to lower levels. It has developed not only district but community civil level civil protection plans as a mechanism for disaster risk reduction. But its operations are strangled by the same economic forces that have made us groan.
While the general thinking is that the first tenet in disaster management is prevention, disaster in the mould of Cyclone Idai cannot be prevented. Climate change is a reality and not even countries with the strongest economies can prevent nature. What perhaps is within us is minimizing its effects.  And indeed, we lacked the robustness and aggression in terms of alerting the communities by way of information blitz. The media fraternity could have come to the party given that the Department of Meteorological Services had alerted us. But most of the media houses and personnel have become ensconced with the political side of Zimbabwe. It is a sad reality that politics has strangled us as a country.

It is also necessary to remember that for a long time Chimanimani had not experienced a disaster of this scale. Yet we continue to live during Noah's time.  It was always going to be difficult for the community of Chimanimani to respond urgently to the warning without a bit of some force. In some countries, the security apparatus comes to the thick of things when it comes to rescuing and we did not see much of it because of circumstances operating during the melee. The Airforce of Zimbabwe is a member of the Civil Protection Unit and we are told that in terms of rescue, they were disturbed by the gusty winds and cloudy conditions which impaired visibility.

Should it be resourced both materially and in terms of human, the Department of Civil Protection should then be able to reach all corners of Zimbabwe and inform citizens about the need for preparedness for any disaster. Because of resource limitations, the department has for long prioritized those districts that have had had a fair share of disasters. With its thin manpower, it has set up disaster risk reduction measures in as far-flung areas as Malipati, the Save Valley, Tsholotsho and so forth.  With the devolution being an important provision within our constitution, its implementation may go a long way in alleviating province specific challenge. Coming top for each province will be disaster preparedness. Priorities of provinces will be seen in the form of budget allocations in matters relating to disaster management.

Devolution should not remain a political talk but should be a reality. The accusation of a centralized civil protection unit is based on failure to acknowledge a governance system that needs change. With the devolved system, each province will be able to set up systems that work for its community. After all it is the community that knows its hazards, and the sooner it communicates it to a leadership that is homegrown the better.

Johanne and Kowanai Mhlanga are brothers and they write in their capacities. They can be contacted on and

Source - Johanne and Kowanai Mhlanga
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