As Cyclone Idai devastates parts of Africa, Foreign Editor David Pratt takes stock of its horrific impact and the pressing global questions it has raised about our response to such disasters.

It might as well have devastated the dark side of the moon for all the attention it has been given. But then it’s in Africa, isn’t it? These things happen there, have done before and doubtless will again, so what’s new?

If I had the proverbial pound for every time such cynical responses have crossed my path after returning home from covering humanitarian crises across the African subcontinent and elsewhere these past decades, then the needy coffers of aid agencies would be better off right now.

It was late on Thursday, March 14 when Cyclone Idai made landfall off the coast of Mozambique, before hurtling it’s gargantuan wrecking ball of 120mph winds, rain and floods into Zimbabwe and Malawi, causing devastation across swathes of all three countries.

What Idai left in its wake has been described as perhaps the worst weather-related disaster ever to hit the southern hemisphere. Already the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has declared the flood crisis a level three emergency, putting it in the same bracket with Yemen, Syria and South Sudan.

In terms of its impact for the estimated 1.7 million people caught up in this maelstrom, it meant storm surges of up to 20 feet deep, creating on the Mozambican coast what BBC reporter Fergal Keane flying over the area by helicopter called an “inland sea”.

For tens of thousands it has meant being trapped by floods, landslides, flattened homes and flooded communities, with crops, roads and electricity supplies wiped away. More than 100,000 people needed emergency evacuation in the Mozambican port city of Beira alone where the cyclone made landfall. Some initial reports estimate that 90% of Beira, Mozambique’s fourth-largest city, with more than 500,000 residents, may be damaged or destroyed. Without electricity Beira has found itself in the dark and has become a ghost town at night.

Many in Beira and elsewhere were stuck on rooftops or on tiny islands of land surrounded by water with no food, clean drinking water or shelter. There have been cases of women with babies trapped in trees and other lucky survivors pulled from neck-deep water.

As ever in such situations, many of those worst affected were already the poorest of the poor, susceptible to hunger and disease even before Idai dealt them such another cruel blow.

“This will have the worst impact on those most vulnerable,” says Caroline Rose, Medecins Sans Frontieres head of mission in Mozambique.

“It’s those who have small, fragile houses that are worst impacted, as they are always the people without the means to build a new house. So it’s a vicious cycle.

“Those who have no means to rebuild will be left outside with no house, more at risk of disease and worse off.”

Aid organisations are of one voice in stressing that it’s now a race against the clock to prevent an even worse catastrophe emerging through the spread of disease.

“We are running out of time, it is at a critical point here,” warned the United Nations children’s agency (Unicef) chief Henrietta Fore on Friday.

“There’s stagnant water, it’s not draining, decomposing bodies, lack of good hygiene and sanitation,” Fore said. “We are worried about cholera, about malaria, because of the stagnant water.”

As ever, humanitarians will have their work cut out harnessing the collective concern of a world that has so far been disproportionately low.

As ever too, those cynics will chant their now familiar mantra about it being far away in Africa and how “charity begins at home”.

To those among such people I would simply ask this. Imagine, just imagine, waking up tomorrow and the sense of desperation you would feel were your own children confronted with the same horrors so many in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi face right now?

How different the callous attitudes of such cynics might be were they, even momentarily, to eyewitness such suffering for themselves up close.

The chaos, pain, helplessness, hunger and disease of such disasters are not an easy thing to confront face on and forget. The juxtaposition with the comparative safety and luxury so many of us take for granted here would also be a real shock to the sensibility of many.

I well recall many years ago when the impact of climate change was dismissed more readily than it is now, returning from Ethiopia where millions were caught in the grip of drought and impending famine.

It was just days before Christmas when I set foot back in Glasgow. The conspicuous consumption of that time of year stood in grotesque marked contrast to a village where I had been just a few days before, watching vultures circling above a community where people were already badly malnourished and some had died of hunger.

“We call them the undertaker birds,” one elderly local man told me, bringing home the terrible resignation so many people feel towards their fate when faced with such helplessness.

Idai’s angry arrival in Africa was yet another ominous sign for a continent already bearing the brunt of climate change. How tragically ironic it was that the cyclone made landfall on precisely the same day that the One Planet Summit, called by French president Emmanuel Macron, opened in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. In the same week too as Idai caused unimaginable levels of devastation, the Africa Climate Week conference got under way in Accra, Ghana.

No doubt delegates at both conferences were again reminded that while Africa is responsible for only 4% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, climate change is considered to directly impact 65% of the African population.

Those in any doubt that Africa is the continent that pays the highest price for this need only have tuned into breaking news reports of Idai’s arrival to be reminded of what this means for millions of people.

As environmental journalist Landry Ninteretse who leads the campaigning organisation Africa 350 has pointed out, for Africans “climate change is not a future risk, it’s already a reality evident in wrecked families, lands and livelihoods, and hopeless children and young people who have no choice but to seek a future by migrating”.

Perhaps those same cynics who complain about foreign aid and the “deluge” of migrants Europe faces should pause and consider this unrelenting impact of climate change. This, after all, is one of the prime reasons why so many of those plucked out of the seas or who drown trying to reach Europe are from the African subcontinent.

Somewhere down the line you can be sure that Cyclone Idai and other disasters will send more on such perilous journeys.

As Ninteretse says, Idai is just the latest reminder that everywhere on the African continent communities fear losing their land as each season hits one country after another with exceptional floods, unexpected storms and increasingly long droughts.

It goes without saying that if a tragedy of such gargantuan proportions as Idai occurred in the Western or “developed” world, then the response would be very different. Two vast cyclones named Trevor and Veronica are currently bearing down on the north coast of Australia and thousands have evacuated their homes in preparation for these two potentially devastating storms.

Not for a moment to dismiss the suffering, destruction and potential loss of life these cyclones will bring to Australians, but it’s almost a certainty we will hear much more about their impact there than what has occurred in Africa this past week.

Some will argue that it has always be thus, that there has been a huge disparity between how we handle humanitarian crises close to home or those that affect “recognisable” locations and how we process disasters that occur elsewhere.

But if there is one thing that the cycle of climate change and migration has shown us it’s that such humanitarian concerns are inextricably connected and transnational in nature affecting us all in one way or another wherever we might be.

There are those who will argue that we cannot be sure that the likes of Idai was caused by climate change. But global experts agree that climate change certainly made it worse and point to three factors.

First, warmer air temperatures mean more rain is held and then released. Idai produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days, more than two feet in parts of the region.

Second, the region has been suffering from sustained drought in recent years, itself a problem associated with climate change.

As Unicef chief Henrietta Fore has pointed out, the water that has arrived has not drained. The hard, parched earth was unable to absorb water quickly, which has also increased the risk of flash flooding.

Third, rising sea levels mean that storm surges such as those that engulfed the port city of Beira creating that “inland sea” are about a foot higher than a century ago having been fed by melting ice at the poles.

“Cyclone Idai is a clear demonstration of the exposure and vulnerability of many low-lying cities and towns to sea-level rise as the impact of climate change continues to influence and disrupt normal weather patterns,” said Mami Mizutori, the UN’s special representative for disaster risk reduction.

For the moment though, on the ground, current relief efforts in coping with Idai “are nowhere near the scale and magnitude of the problem”, according to Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“The situation is simply horrendous. There is no other way to describe it,” As Sy said after touring camps in Mozambique.

“Three thousand people who are living in a school that has 15 classrooms and six, only six, toilets. You can imagine how much we are sitting on a water and sanitation ticking bomb,” he added, expressing the fear of many aid workers that disease is now the biggest threat.

In neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi, meanwhile, the situation is also dire. In Zimbabwe, floods have affected an estimated 15,000 people, while in Malawi, 94,000 people are estimated displaced and 840,000 have been affected, according to the government.

Across all three countries, many regions remain inaccessible and the death toll has now topped more than 1,000 but is almost certain to soar in the coming days.

For aid agencies, access to potable drinking water, shelter, food, and healthcare are the priorities, they say, with water, sanitation and hygiene needs particularly urgent as the risk of waterborne diseases is the major concern across the board.

“In Beira, we fear a huge cholera outbreak soon,” said Caroline Rose of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

“The main challenges will be getting treatment for people who don’t understand they have cholera, and that it’s urgent, or people who are not reachable, or people who cannot reach health centres,” Rose confirmed.

The arrival of Idai has once again brought home with devastating force issues and questions that affect us all.

It has reminded us of the prevailing view among some that distant disasters are not our concern.

It has highlighted again too the selective nature of those headlines some media outlets choose to prioritise. Indeed, you could be forgiven for not even realising the extent of the tragedy unfolding in the wake of Idai such is the minimal coverage it has received in our “first world” centric reporting.

Here in the UK, we’ve barely engaged with what has happened in Mozambique and its neighbours. As for those charity begins at home cynics, I know from long experience that their voices are those of the minority and by contrast the vast majority of ordinary people dig deep in their pockets and hearts when confronted by the suffering of their fellow human beings.

Above all, Cyclone Idai has brought home again why we can no longer ignore the impact of climate change.

In October 2018, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction released a report that highlighted the staggering financial impact of climate-related disasters.

In the period 1998/2017, disaster-hit countries reported direct economic losses of $2,908 billion of which climate-related disasters accounted for $2,245bn or 77 % of the total.

It’s a staggering figure and no, it’s not just in Africa and elsewhere that such an impact will be felt. As those among our younger generation have admirably been highlighting for weeks now in their school protests across the world, climate change is something that affects every one of us. It’s time we all paid attention and followed their lead.