Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.​​
Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique

The Cyclones Destroyed Everything. Climate Change Will Likely Make Things Worse

Mozambique contributes only a fraction of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet its people are among those suffering the most from the effects of the climate crisis.
July 21, 2021, 9:16am

BUZI, Mozambique – Two women are washing clothes on the northern bank of the Buzi river. One is carrying a round-faced child on her back. Their hands move up and down as they plunge the soapy fabric into a bucket of brackish river water and slap it against a washing board. A waist-high heap of unwashed laundry waits behind them. 

“For those clothes over there it's just 150 Mozambican meticals (£1.70),” says the woman not holding the child, 24-year-old Catarina Joaquim Ukanga. “This is to split between two people. 75 meticals (£0.85p) for each. If you refuse, they will look for another person to do it, because there are so many people looking for jobs.”

Catarina Joaquim Ukanga (Right) washes clothes on the northern bank of the river Buzi, in Buzi town, Central Mozambique.

Catarina Joaquim Ukanga (Right) washes clothes on the northern bank of the river Buzi, in Buzi town, Central Mozambique.

Almost everyone here is looking for work. In January of this year, Cyclone Eloise hit the area, ripping the roofs off houses and causing heavy flooding that put many of the region’s farmers out of work. A month earlier, Tropical Storm Chalane roared through. And in 2019, Cyclone Idai, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, decimated the region.

The southeastern village of Buzi, built on the bank of its namesake river, has been one of the worst-affected areas. Nearby, the river feeds into the Mozambican channel, an arm of the Indian Ocean. When the storms hit, torrential rainfall caused water levels to surge. The riverbanks burst, and water flooded the town. Homes, livelihoods and lives were lost in an instant. 

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Some experts believe that the increase in the intensity and frequency of tropical cyclones and storms in the Indian Ocean can be attributed, at least in part, to climate change. Global warming is heating up the oceans, which breeds ideal conditions for cyclones and storms to develop. They eventually make landfall, destroying everything in their paths. Mozambique contributes only a fraction of the world’s greenhouse gases, yet its people are some of those suffering the most from climate change. The compounding disasters that have hit the Sofala region where Buzi is located have made it nearly impossible for the population to recover and rebuild. Each time people make progress, another weather disaster knocks them down again. 

Mutua resettlement camp in Sofala province, central Mozambique.

Mutua resettlement camp in Sofala province, central Mozambique.

Today, Buzi’s palm trees still tilt sideways, permanently humbled by ferocious winds. The few concrete buildings that have survived the repeated disasters have grey watermarks taller than a man’s head – signs of the almost incomprehensible flooding that has occurred year after year.  

During Cyclone Idai, Ukanga was pregnant with her second daughter. She lived in a compound with several small homes near the river. All but one succumbed to the strength of the rain and the force of the wind. With her small daughter in tow, Ukanga rushed to the guesthouse – the only two-storey building in the entire village. They were stuck on the flimsy metal roof for five days. 

A girl cooks in a tin can in Mutua resettlement camp, Sofala province, central Mozambique

A girl cooks in a tin can in Mutua resettlement camp, Sofala province, central Mozambique.

As more and more villagers clambered up, rumours spread that the guesthouse was collapsing. Panic ensued. Ukanga had to make a decision. Stay on the roof or jump into the neck-high water swirling below and swim to a safer place. “I was able to jump with a child on my back and pregnant,” she says. “Thank God I was not injured.”

Idai reportedly killed more than 600 people, injured around 1,600, affected more than 1.8 million and caused an estimated $773 million (£563 million) in damages to buildings, infrastructure and agriculture in Mozambique alone. It might have seemed like a one-off disaster, a tragic case of nature’s wrath, were it not for Tropical Storm Chalane and Cyclone Eloise that soon followed.

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“In 2021, there was a cyclone again,” says Ukanga, who had to flee her home for a second time and seek refuge in the town mosque. “We rebuilt [our house] in 2019, and then, it was gone. We were left homeless. Now, in 2021, we rebuilt it again.”

Cecilia Chata Valentim makes masks in Mandruzi, a resettlement area in Sofala province.

Cecilia Chata Valentim makes masks in Mandruzi, a resettlement area in Sofala province.

Despite efforts by the government and humanitarian organisations to implement solutions and increase the resiliency of the population, Mozambique still remains one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change. The scale and strength of Cyclone Idai garnered a massive international response in 2019, but since then, the government and humanitarian organisations have been unable to provide support to all of the affected families, many of whom feel forgotten and left behind. 

“There were many projects that came here, mainly in 2019. This year there are no projects,” Ukanga explains. “[I]n 2021 we don’t have support.”

A boy walks on his hands in Mutua resettlement camp, Sofala province, central Mozambique.

A boy walks on his hands in Mutua resettlement camp, Sofala province, central Mozambique.

Guara-Guara resettlement camp sits just a few miles down the road from Buzi. It was built on higher ground to house thousands of families displaced by the cyclones. The camp is organised by disaster: 2019 Cyclone Idai survivors in one area, 2020 Tropical Storm Chalane survivors in another and recent arrivals from this year’s Cyclone Eloise in a third location. 

Outside one tent, an elderly man tends to his plot with surprising gusto. His name is António Simango, and he is the grandfather of four young children. In January, Cyclone Eloise forced Simango to leave the home he had lived in since 1981 and move to Guara-Guara. 

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“It’s difficult, but the most important thing is life, not the [home of] 40 years,” Simango says. “The most important thing is life with my grandchildren, with my family.”

António Simango in in Guara-Guara resettlement camp, near Buzi town in Central Mozambique.

António Simango in in Guara-Guara resettlement camp, near Buzi town in Central Mozambique.

Simango’s family has stayed behind in the village while he builds a small house for them in Guara-Guara. During the day, he works more doggedly than a grandfather should have to. At night, he lies alone in his dark tent and misses his family. Once the area is better prepared, he will bring them to live here. But he worries about their future. 

“I’m 68 years old. I grew up without seeing these cyclones. Without these heavy winds and floods. Only now, after having grandchildren, this is happening. That’s why I’m not confident with this life,” he says. 

António Simango in in Guara-Guara resettlement camp, near Buzi town in Central Mozambique.

António Simango in in Guara-Guara resettlement camp, near Buzi town in Central Mozambique.

The increase in cyclones over Simango’s lifetime could be, in part, because the world has gotten warmer. NASA data shows that nineteen of the warmest years have occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998 (which was also really warm). The year 2020 tied with 2016 for the warmest year ever recorded since people started keeping records in 1880. 

As a result, ocean temperatures have increased. Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of all anthropogenic heat, which is generated by human activity. This matters because “tropical cyclones are really dependent on the ocean temperature,” says Abubakr Salih Babiker, a climate scientist at the Nairobi-based ICPAC, a World Meteorological Organisation accredited climate centre. 

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“Warmer water is a basic ingredient for the initiation of tropical cyclones and for their life cycle. The heat in the water acts as a fuel for this engine that we call a tropical cyclone,” Babiker says.

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The tropical Indian Ocean, which touches Mozambique’s 1,600 mile-long coastline, is warming faster than any other tropical ocean. Although it represents only 20 percent of global ocean area and volume, Indian Ocean warming is responsible for around 30 percent of the increase in global oceanic heat content since the year 2000. 

The Indian Ocean contains two significantly different areas – the warmer eastern part known as the Indo-Pacific Warm pool and the normally cooler western part of the Indian Ocean. Between 1950 and 2010, the Indian Ocean warmed two to three times faster than the central tropical Pacific, which extended the tropical warm pool westward. The western part of the Indian Ocean, along the East African coastline, is the fastest warming part of the tropical ocean systems, making it the largest contributor to the overall increase in the global average sea surface temperature. 

Fishermen and informal workers start their day in at Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.

Fisherman and informal workers start their day in at Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.

The difference in temperature between these two areas creates a gradient, or dipole, that affects weather and rainfall patterns. When the gradient is minimal, the dipole is considered neutral. When the dipole is negative, the water is warmer than average in the eastern part and cooler than average in the western part. This brings cooler and drier weather to East Africa. When the dipole is positive, the conditions are flipped, bringing warmer and wetter weather - including cyclones and tropical storms - to East Africa.

While the Indian Ocean Dipole is a naturally occurring phenomenon, “it’s expected to be exacerbated by climate change,” says Babiker. 

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This appears to already be happening. In 2019, a record-breaking eight tropical cyclones developed over the Indian Ocean and made landfall over Asia and East Africa. 

Fishermen and informal workers start their day in at Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.

Fisherman and informal workers start their day in at Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.

However, some well-renowned scientists are hesitant to link the cyclones directly to climate change. 

“[I]t is virtually impossible to attribute any individual cyclone event to climate change,” says Philippe Caroff, an expert at the World Meteorological Organisation. “Since there have always been tropical cyclones roaming in the Mozambique Channel and impacting Mozambique...the occurrence of such an event is by no way by itself abnormal.”

Buildings partially destroyed by cyclones and flooding near the river Buzi in Buzi town, Central Mozambique.​

Buildings partially destroyed by cyclones and flooding near the river Buzi in Buzi town, Central Mozambique.​

In order to be able to attribute increases in the frequency and intensity of cyclones directly to climate change, scientists must consider periods long enough to get a sufficient sample size to be able to detect any statistically significant trend. “Which means decades for rare events like landfalls in Mozambique,” Caroff reasons.

Whether directly attributable to climate change or not, these cyclones and storms are devastating to the people of Mozambique. Around a quarter of the population is unemployed, and that number is likely to grow due to declining foreign investment, climate-related disasters and a growing insurgency in the north of the country.

Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique

Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique

Farming is a key livelihood that has been badly affected by the cyclones and storms. 75 percent of Mozambicans work in agriculture, planting crops like sugarcane, cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, rice, sorghum and potatoes. After three major disasters in just two years, many farmers in the Sofala province say they are no longer able to make a living and sustain their families through agriculture. 

“We live by farming,” says Ukanga. “From there, we get crops to sell and have some money. But lately, we are not having a good harvest. Rice and corn are not producing well.” 

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Another important source of income in the region is fishing. Praia Nova is a colourful fishing community in Beira, Sofala province’s capital city that was severely affected by the recent cyclones and storms. Early each morning, the fishermen bring in their boats, heavy with their hauls. A flurry of sellers rinse the seafood before gutting and selling it at wooden beachfront stalls. A pungent fishy odour emanates from Praia Nova’s winding roads, which are built back from its stretch of sandy beach. 

Fernando Joao, a 25-year-old fisherman, in Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.

Fernando Joao, a 25-year-old fisherman, in Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.

Fernando Joao, a 25-year-old fisherman, stands alongside his cousin’s boat. The vessel is a ragtag collection of wooden boards and recycled tarpaulin  - so small that even on a clear day with little wind, the waves reach above its sides. 

Joao was fishing in the little boat by the mouth of the Buzi River when Cyclone Eloise descended. The boat flooded, and Joao almost drowned. But the real damage came afterwards.

“When the cyclone affected the fish, it got a bit difficult,” says Joao. “[A] lot of rain fell, and there was freshwater everywhere...so there weren't any fish. It was hard to catch fish.”

A 2019 study shows that extreme weather events, such as cyclones, tropical storms and hurricanes, affect fish at depths up to 120 feet. These events can be deadly – they can directly kill marine life but can also indirectly kill through the conditions they create, such as lack of dissolved oxygen or increased rates of disease due to degraded water conditions. They can also impact the habitats, spawning behaviour and community dynamics of schools of fish. 

Fernando Joao.

Fernando Joao.

Research reveals that fish can recognise certain cues, such as changes in water temperature, as indications that a storm is approaching. After a storm they evacuate nearshore estuaries and coastal ocean environments – where small-time fishermen like Joao make their living – due to reduced water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen levels and move towards deeper water. 

For Joao, a husband and father of two, the loss of his livelihood has been devastating. “When we can't fish, life is hard. We don't have another way of supporting the family,” he explains. 

Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.

Praia Nova in Beira, central Mozambique.

The cyclones and storms have affected even people who work jobs not directly linked to the land or sea. Ayuba Martinho is a charismatic businessman who used to own a locksmith business in Beira. The father of five who has a disabled daughter says he prided himself on his ability to care for his family. 

“Being a locksmith was my life,” he says. “I had my locksmith business. I had five men who I paid per month.”

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When Cyclone Idai came, Martinho’s house was destroyed. But he had a pregnant wife, and he refused to allow her to stay in a crowded accommodation shelter with hundreds of other displaced families. So he used the savings from his business and rented a home for his family.  

But today, Martinho lives in Mutua resettlement camp, a sparse, lonely stretch of land dotted with makeshift tents from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). He stands protectively over his children, watching as they complete their homework in donated notebooks.    

Like so many others, Martinho was hit not once, but twice, by climate change disasters. He had worked hard, cared for his family and saved money but was unable to recover when his home was destroyed twice in as many years. Martinho has been searching for work each day, but has been unable to find employment. 

Rubbish in part of a city-wide drainage system in Beria to help prevent flooding during cyclones.

Rubbish in part of a city-wide drainage system in Beria to help prevent flooding during cyclones.

Martinho feels ashamed at his inability to care for his family. “I'm a competent man, “he says. “When I say that, [I mean] I'm not an idle man. I'm used to coming home late, but not late because of fooling around. It's because of work....I can't sleep too long because I have a family to provide for.”

Mozambique is the 45th most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change and the 24th least ready country to deal with those effects, according to the Notre Dame Global Climate Adaptation Index, which ranks countries and assesses their need for climate change adaptation. 

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This bites because Mozambique is also one of the countries that contributes the least to climate change. Our World in Data, a project of the Global Change Data Lab, a non-profit organisation based in the United Kingdom, conducted comparative research on global greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions. It found that from the year 1751 until 2019, Mozambique contributed only 0.01 percent of global cumulative carbon dioxide emissions compared to the United States’ 25 percent. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted per capita in Mozambique in 2017 was 0.28 metric tons; in the United States it was 16.16 metric tons. 

People infront of buildings partially destroyed by cyclones and flooding near the river Buzi in Buzi town, Central Mozambique. Many people in the area are out of work and looking for jobs.

People infront of buildings partially destroyed by cyclones and flooding near the river Buzi in Buzi town, Central Mozambique. Many people in the area are out of work and looking for jobs.

Despite this, Mozambique has stated its intent to achieve target level emission reductions between 2020 and 2030. 

The Government of Mozambique, the United Nations and non-profit organisations are working to implement solutions to protect the most vulnerable people from the impacts of climate change. The provincial government of the city of Beira has teamed up with the World Bank to build and improve an 11 kilometer city-wide drainage system that would help prevent flooding during cyclones. The United Nations Development Programme and its partners are designing and constructing resilient houses intended to withstand strong winds and heavy rains. 

But these solutions are not enough to hold back the rising tide of climate change and extreme weather events in Mozambique. 

Back in Buzi village, Catarina Joaquim Ukanga finishes telling her story. Then, she walks back to the pile of laundry, picks up a shirt and resumes washing. 

Ed Ram and Orlando Sábado Matendjua contributed reporting to this article.