The scourge of tropical cyclones in Southern Africa

Another summer.

Another tropical cyclone. And another.

Yet more people dead and thousands displaced from their homes.

Southern Africa has really not been lucky with tropical cyclones in many a recent rainy season. The region is already counting the loss of people, essential services, flourishing crops and animal life; and valuable property to tropical cyclones this year.

And the season is not even done yet.

The World Food Programme has said it has drones and other disaster relief equipment ready for the impending Cyclone Batsirai, barely two weeks after the people of Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique and Uganda endured the destructive ire of Tropical Storm Ana, which left them with a death toll of 88 at the most recent count, with scores more still being reported as missing; hundreds others injured and thousands displaced from their homes.

The storm had lost most of its fury when it landed further inland in Zimbabwe and Zambia but the heavy rains have left parts of these countries submerged due to flooding.

“Frequent cyclones during the agricultural season mean loss of harvest, high food prices and increased food insecurity”, said WFP Deputy Regional Director Margaret Malu.

“WFP is already on the ground, and we are ready to provide logistics support to governments and NGO partners, to aid relief efforts and drones and boats, in case of flooding.

“We have also prepositioned food to be able to quickly provide emergency food assistance.”

Aside from the deaths, flooding, destruction of property and rich soils washing way towards the Indian Ocean, the storm also plunged Malawi into total blackout as electricity supply chains got cut, along with other utilities.

The power blackouts also had a slight dent on the operations of medical drone logistic company Wingcopter, who had just expanded their supply chains into Ntchisi in central Malawi.

Sadly, there is no time to stand down yet for emergency services workers in Southern Africa yet, as Cyclone Batsirai has already landed with a peak of Category 4 winds in the cities of Mananjary and Nosy Varika south of Madagascar, leaving ten people dead in its wake, and nearly 50,000 more without homes.

One resident likened the scale of destruction to a bombing.

“It’s as if we had just been bombed,” the resident told the Reuters news agency. “The city of Nosy Varika is almost 95 percent destroyed. The solid houses saw their roofs torn off by the wind. The wooden huts have for the most part been destroyed.”

The scale of the flooding…

While the drones have no power in stopping a tropical cyclone, they can certainly help in mapping out areas likely to be affected by the threat of cyclones for planning purposes.

In the immediate aftermath of a storm, drones will help through searching for signs of life after the storm has passed, which is why the WFP has them on standby, along with other rescue rig like boats and helicopters.

Fitted with the right camera equipment, the drones can fly into an area to find people trapped in their houses or under rock and rubble.

Besides, the unmanned aerial systems can also be used to check for structural stress in affected areas, to ensure that they are safe enough before deploying people and heavier equipment.

Medical drones may also be used to urgently fly in critical medical supplies like blood products to help with keeping injured people alive.

The WFP’s response efforts are in close collaboration with governments, providing logistics support to search and rescue efforts, conducting needs assessments and organising food distributions.

“The floods and bad weather have not only devastated homes and damaged property, but above all they have destroyed the livelihoods and sources of income of the affected households”, said Pasqualina Di Sirio, WFP Country Director in Madagascar.

“Their short and medium-term food security is in great peril. These families, currently in a situation of total destitution, will see their living conditions deteriorate in the absence of urgent assistance until their situation returns to normal.”

Climatologists have attributed the latest extreme weather surges in Southern Africa to the changing climate patterns –

driving hunger and eroding development, causing devastation sometimes in a matter of hours, according to WFP.

At least twelve tropical systems are expected during the current cyclone season, which runs from October to May. The cyclones have been steadily growing bolder and stronger since the year 2000 when Cyclone Eline made it as far as Southern Zimbabwe.

The last devastating cyclone was just three years ago in 2019, when Cyclone Idai killed 341 people and left many others missing, with more than 270,000 people being directly affected, according to a Red Cross report  released in August last year.

“17,608 households were left homeless, twelve health facilities damaged, water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure were damaged, 139 schools were affected, 33 primary schools and ten secondary schools were temporarily closed, and 9 084 learners were affected, the report said.

As one of the affected countries, the Zimbabwe government – through the Civil Protection Unit (CPU) sought to beef up its response repertoire with unmanned aerial support, ending in the organisation receiving a donation of eighteen drones from the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF).

The drones will be used for surveillance and search and rescue efforts in the country’s flood-prone areas.


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