Let’s not let our flood of sympathy run dry

A young girl stands surveys the damage to people’s homes in Beira, Mozambique. The cyclone-ravaged country faces a ‘second disaster’ from cholera and other diseases, the World Health Organization has warned.

Concern Worldwide worker Kieran McConville has just returned from Mozambique and reflects on the desperate conditions the thousands of cyclone victims must endure.

There is one image which remains clearly in my mind’s eye after a hectic and demanding week in rural Mozambique.

As part of Concern Worldwide’s assessment team, we drove as far as we could until the roads were impassable or had been washed away.

We waded through streams and trekked through flooded fields of flattened crops to get to villages which have been levelled.

We met many families, numbed by the scale of the disaster and uncertain of what the future held for them.

But the picture that stays in my head is that of Ernesto Gambulene and his wife Maria, standing in the ruins of their home.

The cyclone had destroyed it in minutes and ruined all of their crops — a hectare of maize, sorghum, and peanuts. They have seven children and look after his elderly mother.

At first, we didn’t even notice her among the rubble and debris. Ernesto explained that, as the cyclone ripped through the tiny village on the night of March 14, it tore down the wall of his mother’s house, smashing her leg.

The look of trauma, confusion, and sadness on her face was heartbreaking.

“We had to carry her in the dark through the water to the main road, which is on higher ground,” Ernesto explained. He himself is visibly traumatised.

“My family are starving, they are crying,” he told me.

But there is no food in the village.

Just three days of food supplies were left in another village, we assessed.

A malnourished Yasmiin when she arrived at the Concern clinic on March 15, and a smiling Yasmiin below with her mother, three months after treatment. Picture: Kieran McConville
A malnourished Yasmiin when she arrived at the Concern clinic on March 15, and a smiling Yasmiin below with her mother, three months after treatment. Picture: Kieran McConville

Everywhere there was destruction and desperation. We passed mile after mile of flattened fields of maize.

Sending up our drone, we got a bird’s eye view of just how bad it was. The crops had been submerged by the floods for much of the previous fortnight and were now rotting where they lay.

We met mother-of-four Teresa Jose Almando, an amazingly strong and resilient woman who has resorted to searching fields for partially rotten maize to feed her children. They are all under the age of 11.

The family is staying in a makeshift shelter on the roadside, having left a temporary accommodation centre because she felt it was not safe. Teresa is doing all she can for her children, but I could see the desperation in her eyes.

Village after village, the story was the same: people at their wits end trying to survive and waiting for help to arrive. But, for a variety of logistical reasons, that assistance has been slow in coming, and what aid had arrived by last week was not nearly enough.

Accessibility is a major issue, with many people living 15 to 20km off the nearest road. Although the flood waters have now subsided, thick mud is preventing vehicles from reaching these areas.

Concern is working in Nhamatanda, 100km north west of Beira — the port city which was substantially damaged by Cyclone Idai.

Many aid agencies are responding to the substantial needs in Beira, which has a population on a par with that of Cork city and county.

Concern’s team followed the path taken by the cyclone inland. Our mandate is to work with the hardest-to-reach and most vulnerable communities.

Kieran McConville
Kieran McConville

Over 90% of the crops in the Nhamatanda area have been destroyed, and the majority of people here are subsistence farmers. They have nothing else. No savings, no assets, no safety net.

The first cases of Cholera have been reported in the district and diarrhoea and Malaria are widespread. With 85% humidity, daytime temperatures of 30-35 degrees Celsius, and large amounts of stagnant water, the levels of waterborne disease will rise unless urgent action is taken. Wells and pumps were damaged and polluted by the cyclone. For some, river water is their only supply.

Getting food and seeds to begin replanting in these places is now a top priority.

The timing of the cyclone was cruel and added greatly to the impact of the disaster. It came at the end of the ‘hungry’ season when people were surviving on the remnants of last year’s harvest. The rainy season had been good and a rich maize crop was due to be harvested within weeks. It was the main harvest of the year. But Cyclone Idai has destroyed the crops and left a hungry population with nothing.

There is now a short period over the coming weeks to replant quick maturing crops for the ‘winter season’. If farmers miss this opportunity, they will have no way to produce food for another 12 months and will be totally reliant on aid.

When I reflect on the humanitarian emergencies I have worked in, it is always the same: it is always those who are most isolated and least able to cope that are hammered the hardest. They are also often the people that the world ignores or quickly forgets. Let’s try hard not to forget them this time.

People sometimes ask me if it is difficult working for Concern and witnessing so much suffering. I see it differently. I see the difference which we can make to people’s lives and how it can help them to recover and rebuild and create a better future for themselves.

The first of Concern’s emergency supplies of plastic sheeting, blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, and cooking utensils will be distributed in Mozambique in the coming days. They will reach 25,000 people, including those in isolated communities. These supplies will be followed by seeds and food. Distributions have already begun in neighbouring Malawi.

Concern Worldwide’s ability to respond is only possible with the support of the public and major donors.

- Kieran McConville works for Concern Worldwide which is working to meet the needs of Cyclone Idai victims in Mozambique and Malawi.

- concern.net

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