Cyclone Idai: 'My family needs to eat, I don't know how we will survive'

In Mozambique, where many people rely on crops to live, Idai’s impact on two key agricultural areas has been devastating

Marie Jose stares out at her field of broken maize stalks, the cobs yellow and mouldy from days of excessive water followed by weeks of extreme sun. She should have harvested them last month, but Cyclone Idai struck her village in Buzi district, in central Mozambique, and destroyed them all.

She is still dealing with the trauma of losing her grandparents and niece to the tropical storm. “They couldn’t hold on in the trees where we were sitting and the wind pushed them into the water,” she says. Their bodies are still missing.

More than 750 people have been confirmed dead from the cyclone, and 146,000 have been displaced. Forecasters expect another cyclone to make landfall on Thursday, although this time the northern province of Cabo Delgado is likely to bear the brunt.

But while Jose grieves, she also has to worry how she is going to feed her surviving family of three until the next, leaner planting season begins in May.

“We have suffered so much, there’s nothing left in these fields for us. My family needs to eat, I don’t know how we will survive or where we can build another house,” she says. Her hut was broken up in the storms.

The central district of Mozambique has traditionally been the country’s breadbasket. Between them, the provinces of Sofala, where Buzi is found, and Manica once produced 25% of the national cereal output in a country where 80% of the population relies on agriculture for support. But almost all of that is gone. More than 700,000 hectares of crops were destroyed by Idai and the UN estimates 1.85 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has started distributing seeds and agricultural equipment to communities at “risk of immediate food insecurity,” says Lisa Ratcliffe, a~Z communications officer.

A maize field ravaged by Cyclone Idai.
A maize field ravaged by Cyclone Idai. Photograph: Tendai Marima

So far more than 75,000 farmers have received quick-growing seeds across Sofala and Manica. But help has yet to reach Jose and others in her district, where the roads are still impassable.

David Beasely, executive director of the World Food Programme, predicts that restoring normal production in the ravaged farm fields could be “a one-year recovery process”.

Villagers like Ameria David, 75, from Buzi district, might not have a year to wait. She depends on ground maize to feed her family of seven, and her stocks could be gone in a fortnight.

“There will be nothing left to eat soon, the rest of our cobs are rotten. I don’t know what we’ll eat after this [the maize she has left] is finished, there’ll only be hunger left for us,” she says.

As well as farmers, those who fish along the coast have also been badly hit.

Every morning, Jose Ferdinand, 25, and his friend cast their green mesh net into the Indian Ocean, hoping the day’s catch of fish will be better than the last. But more than a month since the cyclone pounded the port city of Beira, some of Mozambique’s seafarers are still finding slim pickings.

“These days we don’t fish as much as we normally do, the water is mixed with river water so it’s not as salty as it should be. Fish like the sea water, but since the cyclone they aren’t coming so close to the shore,” he says, eyeing the day’s meagre haul.

Jose Ferdinand and friend return from a fishing trip in Mozambique’s coastal city of Beira
Jose Ferdinand and friend return from a fishing trip in Beira. Photograph: Tendai Marima

The Pungwe river, a 400km-long, flood-prone waterway that rises in eastern Zimbabwe, meets with two other rivers, and then flows into the Mozambique Channel in Beira. Ferdinand is not alone among fisherfolk in believing the fresh water may have affected the ocean’s salinity.

Corene Matyas, an associate professor at the University of Florida with expertise in the patterns of cyclonic rainfall, says this is possible but cautions that a complex computer simulation model would be needed to assess exactly how Cyclone Idai impacted the ocean.

“[T]he storm passing over the waters causes mixing and can change salinity levels at different depths,” says Matyas.

“In some cases, the surge of freshwater from rainfall takes more than a week to reach the ocean and impact sea life, and salinity levels can remain altered for several weeks – especially near the surface, as fresh water is less dense than salt water.”

In this southern coastal nation, millions depend on fish as a key source of nutrition.

Thobile Gwame, 24, a fishmonger and resident of Praia Nova in Beira, says business is slow after Cyclone Idai
Thobile Gwame, 24, a fishmonger and resident of Praia Nova in Beira, says business is slow after Cyclone Idai. Photograph: Tendai Marima

“Livestock and fisheries … suffered extensive damage and losses from the cyclone and it has impacted livelihoods and food security across the region,” says Ratcliffe.

“Fish play an important nutritional role in Mozambique, particularly as livestock consumption isn’t dominant and the main protein sources are chicken and fish.”

Thobile Gwame, 24, a fish vendor in Praia Nova, a slum by the sea in Beira, complains about the limited supplies of fish and shrimp.

“People here don’t buy much, because most have gone to stay in the [displacement] tents. Those who are here don’t have much money nowadays, but fish is the only relish people get easily, there are hardly any cabbages or tomatoes,” he says.

Gomez Salgado Tome, 57, a shopworker who has lived in Praia Nova for more than 25 years, said he’d never witnessed a cyclone of the scale of Idai, which destroyed the family’s two-roomed house.

“I’m trying to fix my house but I can’t afford to fix it properly. I don’t even have the money for any food for the family. I have a bag of rice from my employers, they gave it to us when they heard about the house, but that’s all we eat. We can’t buy fish like we used to. I just don’t have the money,” he says.

Tendai Marima in Buzi and Beira

The GuardianTramp

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