For the second time in a month, Mozambique is dealing with a catastrophic cyclone. On Thursday night local time, Cyclone Kenneth roared ashore on the country’s north coast with the strength of a major hurricane. Like its predecessor Cyclone Idai, the storm is expected to linger inland and dump feet of rain.
The combination of back-to-back powerful cyclones means that the already underfunded response to Idai will likely be stretched gossamer thin. The timing and strength of the storms will also aggravate food insecurity and could lead to dam breaches in the coming days, unleashing a whole new wave of humanitarian disasters.
“Mozambique has faced cyclones before but the fact that last month was one of the worst disasters they’ve ever experienced and now we’re facing the second one, it’s really concerning,” Corrie Butler, a spokesperson for the International Federation of the Red Cross, told Earther. “We’re worried about the impact this could have on our communities not just in Mozambique but also in southern Tanzania and in Comoros.”
Cyclone Kenneth spun up in the south Indian Ocean earlier this week and beelined for Mozambique. It strafed the island nation of Comoros on its way, killing at least three. As it traversed the warm waters of the Mozambique Channel, the storm gathered even more strength. By the time of landfall near the city of Pemba, the storm was packing winds of 126-132 mph based on satellite estimates. That makes the storm equivalent to a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, and much more powerful than Idai, which was the equivalent of a Category 2 storm at landfall. Cyclone Leon-Eline in 2000 is currently the strongest storm to ever hit Mozambique, with winds of 130 mph, so there’s a chance Kenneth could take that record depending on the final official analysis.
But while wind speeds are how we rank cyclones, it’s the rains that are the biggest concern with Kenneth, which could raise a host of challenges when it comes to the humanitarian response.
“Kenneth certainly has the potential to produce the kind of massive inland rains we saw with Idai,” Bob Henson, a meteorologist with Weather Underground, told Earther. “Fortunately, it will be affecting a much more sparsely populated area, but unlike Beira [where Idai struck], it’s a region with no experience of hurricane-strength storms in records going back at least 50 years.”
The immediate concerns are flooding and what it could do to infrastructure. Roads could cut off rural communities from aid and landslides could compound the problem. It’s the same issue aid agencies faced after Idai, where communities are still being reconnected with the outside world weeks after the initial disaster. To help mitigate some of the risks, Butler said local Red Cross volunteers, many of whom live in the communities about to bear the brunt of Kenneth’s impacts, have spent the past few days preparing residents for what’s coming. That includes tying down roofs and stockpiling food and water. She also said the group has been making sure messages about hygiene are being broadcast loud and clear to reduce the risk of waterborne diseases like cholera, which has run rampant to the south in wake of Idai. That kind of preparation is crucial in an area that has never experienced a tropical cyclone in recorded history, let alone one as fierce as Kenneth.
The flooding could also be compounded by dam failures. Saul Butters, the assistant director for CARE in Mozambique, told Earther his group is closely monitoring reservoirs in the area, many of which are near capacity. CARE has identified Chipembe Dam located about 140 miles inland of where Kenneth made landfall as one of the dams “already in a weak state.
Longer term, the timing of Kenneth also comes at the start of harvest season in the north. The Food and Agriculture Organization reported in late March that this year’s harvest of cereal crops was likely to be a good one, but the rains and floods could wash out fields leaving subsistence farmers with no food or income.
“So now we’re looking at how do we get to next April when we have the next harvest opportunity,” Butters said. “People [are going to go] basically for a year without any any significant food source, which is the huge problem that’s going to continue for the next year.”
On its own, the scenario in northern Mozambique could be a humanitarian crisis. But with the country still reeling from Idai, whatever Kenneth brings could stretch resources.
“A lot of our resources have already been used in Cyclone Idai in response, and most of our human resources and most of our funding is focused there at the moment so this is the last thing we needed,” Butters said.
Dorothy Sang, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Advocacy and Campaigns Manager in Beira, Mozambique, told Earther a similar story about the group’s response, noting that “[t]he crisis here is very far from over, and Cyclone Kenneth could be yet another disaster” for one of the poorest countries in the world.
Aid agencies already have a lot of supplies in the region as part of the Idai response, which could be the slightest of silver linings. That means that they can get needed resources to northern Mozambique, Comoros, Tanzania, and other countries affected by Kenneth much faster. But unfortunately, the Idai response remains chronically underfunded. Only a quarter of the $281 million requested by international aid agencies to fund the relief effort has been raised. The lack of aid in part led Mozambique to take out a loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The situation is a microcosm of the issues climate change poses even if the storms haven’t been attributed to them, where overlapping disasters exacerbate poverty and food insecurity.
“Mozambique responsible for 55 times less carbon emissions than U.S.,” Sang said. “International governments—particularly major emitters—have a dual responsibility to cut emissions fast and help vulnerable people now, including those whose lives have been torn apart by Cyclone Idai.” And now Kenneth.