In March, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi experienced severe flooding from Cyclone Idai. Around the same time, parts of Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska experienced devastating flooding along parts of the Missouri River system caused by heavy snowmelt and rain.
Commentators are highlighting the role that climate change played in the “bomb cyclone” in the Midwest. Scientists can link climate change to the general increase in heavy participation over time, but it is much more difficult to identify it with a single event. Some have predicted that above-average flooding will continue. To account for the scale of the destruction—some estimate over $1.3 billion in Nebraska alone—others pointed to the flood control infrastructure, which is not sufficient to contain the greatly increased rainfall of the past few years. Levees, popular flood control constructions in the United States, cannot completely reduce the risk of flooding, yet they encourage construction in floodplains, as do, among other things, federally-subsidized flood insurance and poor regulation.
With respect to Cyclone Idai, commentators point to the fact that, while there has not been an increase in the number of cyclones in the Indian Ocean in the past seventy years, the storms that do occur are more intense. Cyclone Idai is understood to be the worst cyclone on record in the region. There is virtually no flood control infrastructure in place in the African countries affected. Nigeria, for another example, frequently suffers from devastating floods as rivers overflow due to heavy seasonal rains, and has faced criticism for poor responses.
In both the American Midwest and in southeastern Africa, the flooding has led to enormous property damage, displacement of people, and loss of life. But the differences between a catastrophe in a developed country and one of the world’s poorest regions is striking. Around six hundred are reported dead due to Cyclone Idai. Some estimate that the death toll could rise dramatically, absent a major international relief effort. Thousands of those displaced are crammed into inadequate shelters with poor sanitation, increasing the likelihood of disease, and humanitarian workers are planning for the consequences of massive disruption of food chains.
In the American Midwest, national media is reporting at least three deaths as of March 21. Tragic though the flooding is, there are in place disaster relief structures and provision for relief and reconstruction, mostly funded by the U.S. federal government. Nobody anticipates food shortages, and though the region affected includes rich agricultural land, nobody anticipates that there will be a major impact from the flooding on the American food supply.
There will be an international relief effort in southern Africa. USAID is already involved and the U.S. embassy in Maputo is asking the U.S. Department of Defense to mobilize a military team to support rescue efforts. Already there is a U.S. Air Force aircraft on the ground at the Maputo airport. No doubt there will be significant relief efforts from other countries. However, the question is whether international efforts will be enough and whether they will be sustained long enough.
Flooding is a fact of life and climate change will make it worse. While any one country’s impact on reducing climate change, save for a handful of large polluters, will be minimal, the proper regulation of floodplains, sufficient infrastructure, and advance warning systems will help save many lives.