Much accustomed to man-made disasters in the mould of terror attacks and numerous armed conflicts, Africa had a rare taste of a serious natural disaster when Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi were caught in an angry gush of a devastating cyclone last week. It caught the southern African countries quite unprepared; but, more than anything else, this catastrophic occurrence stands as a warning to the complacent world that no part of the globe can assume to be entirely insulated from natural disasters any more, not even areas that are not typically prone to them.
Cyclone Idai, which began as a tropical depression, accompanied by a heavy rain, later assumed the status of a cyclone, leaving in its wake, a trail of annihilation that has completely wiped out villages and claimed many lives. Described as one of the worst tropical cyclones to have hit the Southern Hemisphere, hundreds of lives have been confirmed lost and thousands are stranded, while the Mozambican President, Felipe Nyusi, told a radio station, “It appears we can register more than 1,000 deaths.”
This is quite distressing for an impoverished continent whose people have been barely surviving. Although the city of Beira in Mozambique is said to have borne the brunt of the devastation, neighbouring Zimbabwe, where a dam overflowed, has also reported a loss of over 200 lives, just as the true situation concerning the casualties is still unfolding. As usual, the response to the humanitarian crisis created by the storm that hit over 177 kilometres per hour has been, at best, desultory.
Many people have been separated from their loved ones, while a good number has clung to trees and roof tops, where buildings remain visible above the water level, for survival. Rescue operations have been almost entirely left to international agencies such as the United Nations and Medicins Sans Frontieres, who are expected to come with food, water and equipment for the evacuation and upkeep of the victims. Medical supplies will also be needed to stem the tide of a possible outbreak of diseases at the displaced people’s camps. “Please help us. Tell the world we are suffering. We don’t know where we are going to sleep,” one of the victims said.
It is reminiscent of the 2000 flooding, where over 800 people reportedly died in Mozambique. That particular incident, which was given global attention by the birth of a girl, Rosita Mabuiango, on top of a tree, overlooking swirling, crocodile-infested water, has not in any way affected the state of preparedness of that country for a situation that is gradually becoming a way of life. With the impact of global warming being felt around the world, experts have warned that storms such as Cyclone Idai would become more frequent.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change, an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will boost temperatures, with possible outcomes such as increased risk of drought and increased intensity of storms, “including tropical cyclones with higher wind speed.”
Beyond the storms, there is also the possibility of other natural disasters such as earthquake and tsunami. On March 2, the Ghana Geological Survey Authority reported a moderate earthquake in Accra, the capital, measuring 3.9 magnitude on the Richter scale. Similarly, the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and some parts of Kaduna State have been experiencing earth tremors; these are all indications that these natural disasters are getting closer home. But how ready is Nigeria for a future beleaguered by natural disasters?
It has been obvious from recent experiences that the country is not ready and has no capacity to deal with such a situation. This was confirmed during the two major flooding incidents that occurred in 2012 and 2018. In the 2012 incidents, more than 430 people died and 1.3 million were displaced across many states. Similarly, last year, when the country’s two largest rivers, the Niger and Benue, overflowed their banks, the National Emergency Management Authority, Nigeria’s main response agency, was caught napping. Over 100 people died as many states were declared disaster areas.
While natural disasters cannot be stopped, the trend the world over is to prepare for them, so that when they happen, the impact can be mitigated. Of particular interest is the ability to predict natural disasters. If, for instance, a tsunami is predicted, people can be evacuated well ahead of its occurrence. In cases where people resist evacuation, as have been noticed during the numerous hurricanes in the United States, it is the duty of the government to ensure that they are moved forcibly.
According to the Institute of Advanced Scientific Research, technology has made it possible to predict natural disasters and save lives. For instance, the Early Earthquake Warning detects an earthquake, its magnitude and source, and sends the alert to people’s phones so that they can respond appropriately. There is also the DART for Tsunami warning, the Warning System for Volcanoes and the Pan-STARRS for asteroids and comets. These are technologies that Nigeria and other African countries should be ready to acquire in order to mitigate the impact of natural disasters.
The threat of rising sea levels to coastal cities and communities throughout the world is well known, but new findings show the likely increase of flooding farther inland from tsunamis following earthquakes. A study by the Asian School of Environment at Nanyang Technological University, and National Taiwan University, shows that even minor sea-level rise, by as much as a foot, poses greater risks to coastal communities worldwide. It is, therefore, imperative to stay out of the path of these disasters as nature would always have its way. It is, therefore, important to warn that the rate of land reclamation is exposing Nigeria to such disasters.