Haunted by Cyclone Idai’s trail of destruction

Climate change leaves people vulnerable to flooding and landslides – like it did in March 2019, when a storm blowing through Zimbabwe killed hundreds and displaced thousands.

Violet Chaziremunhu was just finishing cleaning the laundry after school when a grey cloud threatened to burst over Rusitu Valley in Chimanimani, east Zimbabwe. Though the Meteorological Services Department of Zimbabwe had not issued a tropical storm warning, the 18-year-old rushed through her chores so she could close up the house early. The heavy clouds and rain reminded her of when Cyclone Idai made landfall on 15 March 2019.

“I recall, it was on a Friday. I was doing my O level at Rusitu Mission. The headteacher ordered us to return home. When I got home, I did my household chores as usual and went to bed early,” says Chaziremunhu, who was 16 at the time. “There was nothing unusual. I just thought it was normal rain. It was windy and raining.” Chaziremunhu was sharing a bed with her little sister in their five-bedroom house. Her father was with her little brother in the main bedroom. Her mother, a teacher at one of the government schools outside Chimanimani, was away that weekend.

20 October 2021: Scars left by a landslide down a hill show how close it came to destroying a rural homestead. Though the area receives high rainfall, no storm has ever been as violent as Cyclone Idai.

Waking from a deep sleep, Chaziremunhu heard her father calling her to evacuate the house. “I was so confused and in shock when I woke up. One of the bedrooms had been wiped out. There were large amounts of water, stones and sand falling down the hill. I could see bright lighting through the windows,” she says.

After picking up a few valuables, they went to Chaziremunhu’s uncle’s house, about 30m from their homestead. Chaziremunhu hardly slept that night. In the morning they saw the extent of the damage caused by the tropical storm. “Our house had been washed away by the landslides. What used to be our home is now filled with rubbles. My books, clothes and blankets were all gone. I then realised we were lucky to be alive,” she says. Chaziremunhu and her family had to stay at her uncle’s house for several months.

The storm’s toll

Chaziremunhu is among the 270 000 people affected by Cyclone Idai when it hit the eastern part of Zimbabwe, which includes the Chipinge and Chimanimani districts in Manicaland province.

The floods and landslides claimed the lives of 340 people and displaced 51 000. Many went missing and are still unaccounted for. Infrastructure, including about 1 500km of the road network, was rendered unusable for months, while health facilities and about 140 schools were damaged or destroyed. Arable land was rendered unusable and at least 348 cattle, 17 000 chickens, and 222 goats and sheep were lost, alongside large amounts of stored cereals.

The cost of Cyclone Idai’s damage is estimated at $622 million. 

20 October 2021: Violet Chaziremunhu’s sister, Shylet, hangs clothes on a laundry line at her new home. The five-room house was built by her father with the help of an aid organisation after a landslide demolished their previous one.

Rusitu lies in the valley near the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Though the area receives high rainfall and most rivers and springs run throughout the year, it had never experienced a tropical storm that left such a trail of destruction.

Africa contributes 43 billion tonnes of CO₂, which only accounts for 2.73% of global emissions.  Huge chunks of global emissions come from the developed world, including the United States and China. It is poor communities like Rusitu that suffer the most from extreme weather, and more places in developing countries will be more vulnerable if governments across the globe do not gear up their efforts to reduce these emissions.

Chaziremunhu’s father, a builder who received materials from a humanitarian organisation, rebuilt their house. “After World Vision rebuilt the two-room house for us, my father added other rooms to make it a five-room house,” says Chaziremunhu, who is now doing her advanced level studies. The builders had to find a new site on their piece of land that was not in the path of floods and landslides. 

Another villager from Rusitu, Final Shabiso, 45, whose house was rebuilt after being destroyed by the storm, says the builders used mortar on the new building. His old house was built with poles and dagha – traditionally sand, water and cow dung – on top of a hill near a spring, making it vulnerable to floods.

Shabiso, a father of nine children with two wives, sought refuge with a neighbour in March 2019 after his home was washed away. “The only thing that we were left with is the clothes that we were wearing. Everything was washed away. We were given two rooms to share with my family by my neighbour,” he says. “It was tough sharing a two-roomed house with my big family. Each of my wives was forced to sleep with my teenage boys and girls, who were not supposed to be sleeping in the same room with their mother as per our Ndau culture.”

Shabiso says each wife later got a new two-roomed house. They were built using brick to make them resistant to extreme weather.

20 October 2021: Final Shabiso’s two wives and some of his nine children stand on a rock that tumbled onto their farm when their home was washed away by landslides two years ago.

More than 400 houses were repaired or rebuilt in Chipinge and Chimanimani. Other houses affected by the cyclone and rehabilitated are still at risk of flooding because they are located along rivers and streams. Some are old and would not withstand another heavy storm. 

Agness Mawacha, 44, from Rusitu is one of the villagers whose house was refurbished after parts of it were damaged by the tropical storm, but she does not feel safe. “This house was built before the 1950s. Its roof is now weak. I am living in fear that if the storm strikes again, the roof will be blown off. It is already leaking when it is raining,” she says, pointing out the flimsy corrugated sheets and rotten timber. Cyclone Idai destroyed the room in which her son was sleeping, but he managed to escape.

In Rusitu, most villagers are smallholder farmers who grow fruit, including bananas, avocados and pears, which are sold in Bulawayo, Harare and Mutare. Cyclone Idai robbed most of the villagers of their livelihood as crops were destroyed and the land was rendered barren.

20 October 2021: Agness Mawacha stands beside her house, which was refurbished after the cyclone damaged parts of it.

Some smallholder farmers such as Shabiso were left to pick up the pieces by themselves. “I cleared all the rubbles and started planting these banana trees. I am self-employed. I sell bananas, carrots and peas so that I can put food on the table for my family as well as pay school fees for my children,” he says.

Cyclone Idai has left Chaziremunhu traumatised. “Whenever it rains, it reminds me of that horrible night,” she says. “My body trembles and I start crying.”

 This story was published with the support of the British Council as part of COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

20 October 2021: Agness Mawacha looks out of her bedroom window. She is worried that because her house is old, it will not withstand another heavy storm. 
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