In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai: Reflections from a visit to Chimanimani – by John Wilson

On my first evening in Chaseyama I heard the first of a number of stories from people who experienced the horrors of the night of 15th March. Amai Mercy, Julius Piti of PORET’s wife, was in Ngangu township that night. Ngangu was one of the two peri-urban areas in the district that were particularly badly hit. The other was Ndakopa, known as Copa. I later saw Ngangu but didn’t reach Copa. There may also have been others in Rusitu valley. When I was there, a number of places in Rusitu were still cut off.

Amai Mercy went into great detail to describe what happened, hour by hour, during that terrifying night. It brought home all the more to me the trauma of such an event. While people were going through it, perhaps huddled somewhere in the rain or in a Church whose safety they were unsure about, surrounded by bodies, some living, some dead, they had no end in sight. The heavy rain continued relentlessly. It was very cold, hour after hour, expecting they may be washed away any minute like they had seen happening to others. From a distance I hadn’t got the full picture of the terror of what happened.

Then when the rain eventually eased, they were left with destruction all around them. They were cut off from elsewhere and it was nearly a week before the first vehicles got out of the district. People were mourning or looking for missing relatives and friends. Food was short and became more expensive by the day. My words cannot even vaguely touch what people went through. It was my first time to visit a scene of such destruction, and this was three weeks after. I still keep running through my mind what people must have gone through.

The other thing that struck me was the power of the response. For example, within no time at all volunteer teams in Chikukwa were out working to open a new road, with the CELUCT centre feeding them each day. This community centre also took in many people who were left homeless in Chikukwa by the Cyclone. The hotel in Chimanimani opened its doors for many homeless people from Ngangu township. One resident went into a local shop and donated all that he had, $3,000, the day after to buy food for those staying in the hotel. Residents who had not been so badly affected helped those who had been badly affected, feeding them, offering them blankets and shelter. Other residents with contacts outside organized helicopters to come to the district, working tirelessly to reach cut off areas and to bring injured people to hospitals and to get food and medicines to those people hit badly and with no access to the outside world. I heard about a number of examples, but I’m sure these were just the tip of the extent to which people responded.

Earth moving equipment came from around the country to clear the roads and make temporary roads around the damaged sections of road and the broken bridges. I could clearly see as I was driving from Wengezi to Chimanimani town how badly the road had been blocked everywhere.

TSURO and CELUCT, who are SKI partners, turned all their attention to provide relief, mobilizing support wherever they could, handling the logistics, and working extremely hard to get help where it was needed. Within a short time they were offering psychological support too. Having been there I could see just how important this has been. The trauma people went through was huge. As an outsider coming into the district I was greatly moved by the enormity of the response. TSURO were helped by the fact that both Backsonj Muchini and Solomon Mwacheza have had relief experience in previous organisations they’ve worked for. I could see that they were both exhausted by the time I arrived there, as were other staff members. I saw similarly exhausted CELUCT staff members.

I think there was also, by the time I got there, a little cynicism creeping in as lots of big 4 x 4s kept pouring in. Disaster is also an industry. All accommodation was taken up. One person suggested that I was one of the disaster tourists, and I guess he wasn’t that far off! I’m sure it’s all a mixed bag and simply represents our imperfections as people. Christa, my wife, told me on the phone while I was there that she had read in a newspaper that experts had moved in to look at future settlement planning. When I mentioned this to someone who is very much part of the relief effort and knows his home district well, he raised his eyebrows and with a wry smile said “The district is now full of experts”.

Impressions of the destruction to the landscapes: 

Let me share a few reflections around the damage and how I see it. I came away thinking that in fact the damage to the landscapes was not as bad as I had been expecting; not as bad as one might expect from the incredible volumes of water that fell in such a short time. One person recorded 860mm in 24 hours and then stopped recording! The original figures of around 700mm are being revised to an estimate of 1,000mm for the worst hit areas. I’m not sure if anyone reliably measured the amount of rain.

One thing that also struck me while I was there was how much more sound of water there was than I remember from previous visits. Even though a great deal of the water ran off, quite a bit was captured by landscapes and is now flowing.

There seemed to be two main sources for the deaths and the overall damage: landslides and accumulated water run off in streams and rivers. The two of course are linked in that the landslides contributed significantly to the expanded streams and rivers. The landslides seem to be quite complex with certain geological factors perhaps contributing to some of the landslides. What are called C-slips (“the effect of abundant water entering cracks in weathered rock and pushing it from the bottom” – from engineer in Chimanimani and confirmed by a Geologist friend of mine) could have had an impact.

I suspect that ground cover and permeability of the soil everywhere played a part too. Healthy soil takes in water at vastly different rates to unhealthy soil (15mm in an hour versus 250mm in an hour is known on the same soils, depending on its health). Also deep roots play a part. Grass roots can be quite deep but the depth they reach will depend on their health as grass plants. Tree roots are even deeper of course. Roots are channels for water to go deep into the ground.

The one place where I went to the source of a landslide is a place that gets burnt often. I remember it being burnt every few years when I was living there in the 1980s and you could see that it had been burnt this year. Regular burning leaves soil baked and hard, apart from the lack of groundcover. In Chikukwa the first assessments seemed to be clear that some areas were worse hit in relation to how they have been managed.

Looking to the future:

After dealing with the horror and trauma, this cyclone will be a very good learning opportunity and the sense I got from TSURO and CELUCT personnel is that they are keen to make sure there is lots of this learning in the communities they work with. Everyone is already learning and wants to take this forward. Ulli Westerman, who has retired from TSURO, has been taken on part-time as a consultant and one of his areas of focus will be the effect of the Cyclone, as well as looking at Agroecology and its way forward in Chimanimani District. CELUCT have already planned a resettlement programme for those people left homeless in Chikukwa. As well as giving 75 families basic shelter the programme will work with them to supply water and plan the ecological management of the land, paying particular attention to water-harvesting.

There is also a lot of goodwill outside Chimanimani that is willing to help any recovery/regenerative process. I’ve had a few emails to this effect. I think what’s important is that any process like this is driven by people in Chimanimani themselves, the organisations and the communities they work with. There is a danger with outside experts if they are not very much part of local initiatives. This should in no way discourage solidarity support from outside but it’s just that it’s critical how this support happens

The cyclone does present a fundraising opportunity to do extensive ecological land use work. The key question is who should raise the funds, how, for what, driven by who? Speaking to Backson, Solomon and Roseline of TSURO, they spoke of the opportunity to take the work they’ve already done developing the district climate change strategy, and the land use planning that they’ve been working on in recent years, to another level across the district. This has a lot of potential. It’s also critical work because while it may be a while before there’s another cyclone (and there will be), there are going to be heavy storms every year I’m sure, especially as climate changes kicks in more. These heavy storms can be a blessing (lots of water) or a curse (lots of run-off and destruction) depending on how the landscapes are managed. (Even as I write Cyclone Kenneth is hitting northern Mozambique; this is far from Chimanimani but it is unknown for Mozambique to be hit by two such Cyclones in one year).

Water run-off management, while critical across Zimbabwe is especially an issue in Chimanimani District because of its topography. It’s also critical to those further down from these extensively linked watersheds that make up the district. My sense that Chimanimani could be an example to the country, the region, and the World remains. And, as came to me while I was there, the name could be a metaphor for this. Chimanimani means ‘a small way through’. Will Chimanimani, the district, the multiple communities of people living in various watersheds in these hilly landscapes, many of which come together into bigger watersheds, will they be able to show the country and the wider world ‘a small way through’ to how one can be resilient in the face of climate change? What support do they need that will strengthen rather than diminish such efforts in this direction?

While I was in Chimanimani I was able to pass on lots of good wishes from members of the SKI family that had been given to me before going there. I hope that SKI can work with its partners in Chimanimani to play a significant part in strengthening seed sovereignty and Agroecology practice in the wake of Cyclone Idai.

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