Cyclone Idai shows the urgent need to prepare better for extreme weather

by Emily Wilkinson and Sarah Barr | Overseas Development Institute
Friday, 5 April 2019 10:20 GMT

Red Cross teams receive emergency shelter supplies in Beira, Mozambique, and prepare to distribute aid to Cyclone Idai survivors, March 19, 2019. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies via REUTERS

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The high level of avoidable harm the storm caused in southern Africa has prompted calls for earlier action before disasters hit

Emily Wilkinson is a senior research fellow in the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Risk and Resilience Programme, and Sarah Barr is a technical advisor for learning with the Start Network.

Hundreds dead, more than 140,000 people displaced, and the rapid spread of waterborne diseases across Mozambique and neighbouring Malawi and Zimbabwe - the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai provides a stark warning of the dangers posed to poor communities living in the path of these grave hazards. 

The extent of avoidable harm has prompted calls for earlier action to avoid such devastation. This makes intuitive sense - and there is a moral imperative to do so if the risks are known. But there have been few clear suggestions on what should be done in advance, by whom, or how to prioritise actions given the severely limited resources available for disaster risk reduction in countries like Mozambique.

One humanitarian financing innovation may have some of the answers. NGOs, U.N. agencies and Red Cross societies are trialling methods to act faster when extreme weather is forecast but before the disaster hits, to limit losses – an approach referred to as ‘forecast-based early action’.

Actions like providing clear early warnings, temporary drinking water points and clearing water channels before flooding have been shown to limit the humanitarian impacts of flooding and cyclones. Getting cash to people before a storm hits could also help them evacuate and protect their property – by reinforcing the windows and roofs of their houses, and by moving assets out of harm’s way.

In Mozambique, the Red Cross was able to trigger action before the floods: 340,000 Swiss Francs (about $340,000) were released the day before Cyclone Idai hit, targeting 7,500 people believed to be at risk. They were given water purification tablets and blankets, and measures were taken to fortify housing. It is gratifying that the forecasts were accurate, and funds were released. Unfortunately, the scale of the disaster far outweighed the reach of the Red Cross project.

Research published this week by the Overseas Development Institute explores options for creating much larger forecast-based early action mechanisms. Focusing on Kenya, Bangladesh and the United Nations Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF), the research highlights the many challenges of scaling up forecast-based early action but also carves out a way forward.

Climate scientists are consistently improving the accuracy of extreme weather forecasting. Predicting how many people are likely to be affected, and in what way, is much more complex. Even when some information is available on where poor people live and their livelihood activities - as is the case in arid counties of northern Kenya - it tells us little about who and how people will be affected by floods elsewhere in the country. But improvements in data are happening all the time.


Scaling up forecast-based early action is not merely a technical exercise - it involves fundamentally shifting the incentives, so everyone involved sees the benefits of acting early vis-a-vis responding quickly. In Bangladesh, being seen to respond effectively after a disaster is valuable political currency - forecast-based action does not offer that opportunity. Another perceived barrier is the risk of ‘acting in vain’ if funds are released using a forecast that turns out to be wrong.

These political and ethical dimensions of emergency preparedness and response need to be addressed head on. For all countries with high levels of disaster risk, responsibility for decision-making and financing when a disaster is predicted needs to be clearly defined in advance. It’s too late to work this out when it is time to act.

The incentives for acting early can be shifted through predictable funding. The CERF for example, could signal to U.N. agencies that funding will be available for early action when the time comes, and in doing so encourage them to prepare for when the trigger is reached.

Significantly reducing the impact of hazards like Cyclone Idai presents a daunting challenge. Without doubt, billions of dollars’ worth of investment is needed to make buildings more resistant to floods and cyclones in places like the Mozambican city of Beira.

But in parallel, and with fewer resources, well-planned actions to prepare for imminent storms can significantly reduce human suffering.