Is there any such thing as a “natural” disaster?: Cyclone Idai in southern Africa

Maddie Margioni, Staff Writer

Members of the University community gathered on April 16 for a discussion on what exactly a “natural” disaster is – if it even exists at all. The conversation was in the context of Cyclone Idai, which recently struck southern Africa.


Post Doctoral Fellow Alicia Hayashi Lazzarini of the University’s Department of Geography began the talk by introducing the events surrounding the cyclone, as well as the background history of the country affected most severely: Mozambique.


Lazzarini first described the cyclone as “a major catastrophe” affecting the countries of Zimbabwe, Malawi, and principally, Mozambique. Cyclone Idai has killed over 500 people in its immediate aftermath, with those numbers expected to rise. In Mozambique, the large city of Beira is 90 percent destroyed, cholera has once again broken out, and over 700,000 hectares of crops have been lost. Another major impact has been the creation of a giant inland sea, which is currently affecting central Mozambique, as well as Zimbabwe and Malawi.


The long-term concerns following Cyclone Idai focus on food security and rebuilding, due to mass destruction of crops and homes as a result of the cyclone.


While Mozambique has a history of flooding, Lazzarini stated that “climate change has contributed to the severity of the cyclone.” She also posited that there is no such thing as an entirely “natural” disaster and that we must “grapple with the human makings of social and economic vulnerabilities.”


Lazzarini then contextualized the history of Mozambique, focusing on the implementation of structural adjustment funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in the 1990s. The reason that these funds were necessary was that Mozambique shifted from a socialist government to a capitalist one. Therefore, loans from the IMF were needed in order for the country to compete on a global scale.


According to Lazzarini, these funds were directed towards former colonies in the Global South, but they came with mandatory reform packages that ended up doing more harm than good. The reforms mandated restructuring the economy through austerity measures like reducing healthcare and education spending, deregulation of the economy, and increasing foreign direct investment (FDI).


At this point in the discussion, Lazzarini handed the moderation over to Ruth Castel-Branco, a scholar-activist and Ph.D. candidate from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa who had Skyped in for the discussion.


Castel-Branco explained how climate change has impacted the region by saying that “Mozambique and particularly this region of Mozambique is prone to tropical storms,” but “regions that were considered safe 20 years ago no longer are.”


She also discussed how the many small towns in Mozambique have very few government resources, so they lack the resources to respond to this level of disaster. Also, “most people in Mozambique don’t have access to social welfare,” meaning that “they’re really left on their own,” Castel-Branco said.  


Furthermore, there has been government corruption all through the transition from socialism to capitalism. Castel-Branco’s proposed changes for Mozambique’s government include the need to strengthen state capacity and the need for “challenging a politics of austerity,” as well as “having a concerted response to climate change.”


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