Cyclone Idai, which was labelled by the UN as possibly the worst climate calamity to ever hit the Southern Hemisphere, pounded Beira, Mozambique, in March 2019. The European Space Agency images revealed that a huge new inland ´lake´ measuring about 80 miles by 15 miles, an area the size of the European state of Luxembourg, had suddenly been created by the catastrophe.
However, millions of residents were caught unaware when, for a time, Beira city and surrounding districts were transformed into an island of flooded plains, fallen trees, power lines, shattered windows, and vanished electricity. Ferocious wind speeds of over 200km per hour extended westward to the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe and Malawi and as a direct result of the cyclone, 1297 lives were lost.
Did Western climate agencies send out warnings?
As Beira, Mozambique, flicks back to life, the question of who watches the weather has become pressing. It was reported that on 1 March 2019, the Météo-France weather office on Réunion (MFR) started to watch the cyclone as it moved from an elongated circulation in the Indian Ocean. On 8 March, at 22:00 UTC, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in the USA gave out a tropical cyclone formation alert. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center is a division of US Airforce and Navy agency that is mandated to supply tropical cyclone early warnings in the North West Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Mozambique, and further afield in neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi, local weather networks hardly raised the alarm. As the mayor of Beira city in Mozambique, Mr. Davis Simango, admits: “We have never seen this before. Our infrastructures were prepared to handle winds up to 120km/h but this time we were subjected to winds of 240km/hr.”
As a result, nearly 90% Beira, an internationally vital port city in South East Africa region, was severely impacted.
Who guards the climate?
Extreme weather events like this one are becoming more and more frequent, as climate change is marked to bring future weather havoc in sub-Saharan Africa. There´s little disagreement about that. The question is: do wealthier Western space agencies have a moral duty to collect atmospheric data, collate the data, coordinate and issue timely advance warnings to poorer countries, especially coastal African countries like Mozambique? Whose moral, security or financial obligation is it to warn poor African countries of impending atmospheric/climate dangers?
To understand why these are crucial questions let us look at Mozambique, which has one of sub-Saharan Africa´s longest coastlines, measuring 1430 miles. According to USAID, Mozambique is poised to be disproportionally affected by global climate change because 60% of its population lives in low-lying coastal areas. In these areas tropical cyclones, droughts and coastal storm surge flooding are getting more frequent and forceful. Yet, according to the World Bank, Mozambique is one of the world´s lowest polluters with just 0,321 CO2 emissions per metric ton in 2015.
Do Western European and North American regions that are both much higher CO2 emitters per capita, have a financial liability or responsibility for partly accelerating weather disasters in less polluting countries like Mozambique?
“I don’t quite agree with this. Western countries are of course heavily industrialized but the impact of that on weather patterns is not limited to poor African countries. The South Eastern United States, for example frequently suffers damage from hurricanes,” argues Dr. David Gwenzi, an assistant professor of Geospatial Science at Humboldt University in California. Dr. Gwenzi grew up in east Zimbabwe where Cyclone Idai also caused the loss of 300 lives.
Too poor to heed weather warnings
It´s morally attractive to state that European and North American climate monitoring agencies should share geo-climate data with poor African countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique. However, many African countries hardly have the capacity to process, let alone act on that advance warning data.
“The data is already partially available e.g NASA has the MODIS near real time fire and flood monitoring systems available for free but the technical capacity required for assimilation of the data is very limited,” reveals Dr. Gwenzi.
He adds, “Another challenge is having the resources to use this ‘free data’, such as powerful computers and reliable bandwidth.”
Critics say Western countries have monopolized geo-spatial, geo-climate, geo-weather technology. For example, why would resource-poor nations like Mozambique and Zimbabwe bother to invest in localized geo-climate software when the likes of Western Accuweather and Google Weather software is harvesting and commercializing all the climate and weather data?
This is partly true, but wealthy nations do not have an obligation to share this early-warning data, says Dr. Gwenzi. “Better advice is, all poor nations must work towards memorandum of understandings to build partnerships with the rich countries for climate data sharing.”