Devastation and Displacement: Unprecedented Cyclones in Mozambique and Zimbabwe a Sign of What’s to Come?

In late March 2019, Cyclone Idai made landfall on the central coast of Mozambique. Heavy winds and torrential rains brought devastation across much of central Mozambique, as well as parts of eastern Zimbabwe and southern Malawi. Around 3 million people were affected, including several hundred thousand who were internally displaced. Nearly 2 million acres of crops were destroyed. Just over a month later, in April, Cyclone Kenneth hit northern Mozambique with sustained winds of up to 140 miles per hour, affecting another 300,000 people. 

This is the first time since standard weather-related record-keeping began that two major cyclones have hit Mozambique in the same season, and the only known occurrence of a cyclone striking the country’s far north. As a country with a long Indian Ocean coast, it is accustomed to tropical storms, but not to cyclones of this intensity. In Zimbabwe, Cyclone Idai’s unprecedented heavy rains destroyed crops at a time when many inhabitants already faced hunger due to persistent drought and a deteriorating economy. Climate scientists representing an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community predict that there will be an increase in the proportion of major cyclones with very high winds and rates of rainfall.[1] Therefore, southern African countries bordering the Indian Ocean and those further inland must be prepared for similar future events. 

In May and June 2019, a team from Refugees International (RI) traveled to Mozambique and Zimbabwe to assess the ongoing relief, recovery, and disaster-preparedness efforts. 

The governments of the two countries and the international humanitarian community deserve credit for mounting robust and well-coordinated emergency relief efforts. Many lives were saved as a result, including through a campaign to stave off a cholera outbreak in Mozambique. Despite the impact of the initial response, however, there are four priority issues that must be addressed: sustaining the emergency response for those still in need, ensuring durable internal resettlement or return for internally displaced people (IDPs), preparing for a future hunger crisis due to massive loss of crops, and promoting disaster risk reduction in all aspects of the response.[2]

First, even as attention shifts to recovery and reconstruction, the two governments and international donors must remember that the emergency is not over for everyone. They must sustain relief efforts where they are needed. This is particularly true for communities in hard-to-reach areas in central Mozambique and those affected by Cyclone Kenneth in the far north of the country. Unfortunately, as of July 2019 the United Nations emergency appeal for Cyclone Idai was only 46 percent funded and that for Cyclone Kenneth was less than 20 percent funded.[3]

More than funding, however, is needed to ensure that aid is effective. The RI team encountered affected communities in rural areas that were only receiving their first food distribution two months after Cyclone Idai. There was confusion between international agencies, local implementing partners, and village chiefs about why some villages in a particular district received assistance while others did not. Maintaining senior-level humanitarian leadership and expanding the monitoring of aid delivery will help to ensure that all affected communities receive their intended assistance. This is especially necessary for food distribution. Additionally, in temporary displacement sites, the RI team witnessed a significant lack of measures designed to establish a safe environment for women and girls, such as lighting and gender-specific latrines. This must be addressed.  

Second, early recovery efforts for displaced people must be improved. The storms forced around 200,000 people from their homes. For the majority of those displaced, their land is no longer livable. The governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe have either provided or intend to provide new land for those communities to resettle permanently. However, for resettlement to be sustainable, new land must be selected on criteria that reduce risk in the face of future natural hazards such as high winds, flooding, and landslides. Additionally, both governments—with the support of international donors—must make significant and targeted investments in livelihoods and social services, especially for those who have been moved far from their homes. 

Both governments must also provide basic home building supplies and materials to those who have been resettled and to those who have been able to return home. Most of the former currently live in tents, while many of the latter lost all their possessions and had their houses partially or totally destroyed. They are vulnerable to the elements right now, let alone in the event of future cyclones. 

Third, there is a looming food-security crisis. The two storms destroyed over 2 million acres of crops, primarily across much of central Mozambique, just as the main harvest season was beginning. Much of the destroyed farmland is now covered in mud and sand, making it difficult to prepare for the next main planting season, which usually begins in November. In Zimbabwe, though Cyclone Idai affected a smaller area, the damage exacerbated an ongoing, countrywide food-security crisis. The two governments, donors, and the United Nations must act immediately to stave off an even broader food-security emergency in the months ahead. For example, the World Food Program must be supported to pre-position food stocks in strategic locations, the Food and Agriculture Organization needs more funding to expand the distribution of seeds and tools (including for more flood- and drought-resistant crops), a UN Humanitarian Coordinator should be designated for Zimbabwe, and cash programming should be expanded where feasible. Cash assistance, in particular, can be used in emergencies and to build resilience to mitigate the impact of future shocks. 

Fourth, while Cyclones Idai and Kenneth were unprecedented in southern Africa, the region must be prepared for similar storms in the future. It is imperative, therefore, to not only respond to their devastating effects of, but also to move forward with more robust disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts. 

Too often, it is those who have done the least to contribute to increased vulnerability due to factors such as climate change who are the most affected by disasters resulting from natural hazards. There is an international responsibility to respond to the impact of such disasters and to help mitigate future risk.  



  • Donor governments must provide additional funds for emergency relief. In Mozambique, the UN emergency response plans for the response to the two cyclones are significantly underfunded, lacking approximately $233 million out of the $385 million required. More support is needed for people still in need of life-saving assistance, especially in the region of northern Mozambique where Cyclone Kenneth struck. 
  • The United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator should be prepared to extend the designation of a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) in Mozambique beyond the end of this year. Senior-level humanitarian leadership is needed to maintain a spotlight on the remaining emergency needs and to coordinate ongoing programming in hard-to-reach areas. The UN has confirmed that the HC position in Mozambique will remain until the end of 2019. However, the HC may also need to remain in place into 2020 to mount and coordinate additional relief activities if the crop devastation further exacerbates the food-security situation. 
  • The World Food Program (WFP) should deploy additional monitors for food distribution. It must do more to ensure that food is delivered to its intended recipients, including by using more monitors when working with local partners. 
  • The UN and its operational partners must expand programming to prevent gender-based violence, especially in transit sites for displaced people. Donors should provide support for these additional measures—such as improved lighting and gender-specific latrines—to create a more protective environment particularly for women and girls. 


  • The governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe should ensure that they only resettle people to safe land where future risk is reduced. For any future resettlement, as well as for movements that have already taken place, they should work closely with international partners, such as the United Nations Development Program, to ensure that locations are at low risk of experiencing cyclones and other disasters resulting from natural hazards. Methods and tools such as satellite data, map-based tools, and hydrological analysis should be utilized. 
  • Once land is selected for resettlement, the governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe must ensure that it is prepared in advance. The land must be cleared and prepared for housing, and access to basic social services, like health care and schools, must be ensured. 
  • With the support of aid and development organizations, the governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe should, in consultation with affected communities, provide livelihood support.Most IDPs need income-generating activities to rebuild their lives, especially those who have been resettled far from their home areas. Some who have returned home need assistance as well. Early recovery activities should prioritize job training, income generation, and access to markets. Targeted support should be based on assessments that involve comprehensive communication and consultation with affected communities, especially women. 
  • With the support of UN Habitat and other partners, the governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe should provide materials for displaced people to rebuild permanent homes and businesses in new resettlement sites, as well as for returnees. For the cyclone-hit areas to return to a sense of normalcy and for IDPs to remain in permanent resettlement sites, both governments need to provide tools and materials for people to rebuild. The affected populations are resourceful and resilient, but basic support is necessary for them to utilize their capabilities to address their own needs. UN Habitat, which has expertise in the design and construction of climate-resilient housing, should facilitate this effort.  


  • In Mozambique, donor governments should increase support for the distribution of seeds and tools to farmers whose crops were destroyed. Close to half a million farming families were affected by Cyclone Idai.TheFood and Agricultural Organization and the government have provided only a fifth of those households with seeds and tools for the next planting season. Additional resources are urgently needed. Through seed distribution, more flood- and drought-resistant crops should be made available to farmers to lessen the impact of future climate shocks. 
  • Donor governments must support the World Food Program and others to pre-position food in preparation for a potential widening food crisis across Mozambique and Zimbabwe. TheWFP and others are preparing contingency plans to supply food to communities that were most affected by widespread crop destruction, but substantial donor funding is necessary to implement these plans. Where markets are functioning, the use of cash can also be an effective tool to prevent hunger. 
  • The government of Mozambique should allow the use of cash transfers in humanitarian and resilience programming. Cash programming can be an efficient and effective tool in response to immediate crises, as well as to support the resilience of communities in the face of longer-term climate challenges. Mozambique, however, prohibits relief agencies from making cash transfers to those in need. This restriction must be lifted.
  • The United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator should designate a Humanitarian Coordinator for Zimbabwe. In addition to the situation in areas affected by Cyclone Idai, there is a worsening food-security crisis throughout the country. An HC should be appointed to highlight the needs and to coordinate the humanitarian response across Zimbabwe.  


  • Donor governments and development institutions, like the World Bank, must support the governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe to implement more robust DRR programming. Previous DRR efforts have not matched the needs. Further, in addition to the reconstruction of urban public infrastructure, support for rural communities must be prioritized and communities themselves must be consulted in the development and implementation of projects. 


In March and April 2019, southern Africa was hit by two major tropical storms, back to back. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth devastated huge swaths of land and affected millions of people in poor, under-resourced areas of Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.  

Unprecedented Storms

From March 14 to March 15, 2019, Cyclone Idai passed over a remarkably large geographic area. It made landfall in central Mozambique near Beira, a major port city with a population of over half a million people. The heavy rain and severe wind had disastrous effects as the storm moved inland, causing displacement and loss of life across five provinces in Mozambique. Cyclone Idai also brought torrential rain to southern Malawi and flash floods and landslides in eastern Zimbabwe, with hundreds of people in Chimanimani and Chipinge districts killed in just a few hours. Although the initial wind was intense, it was the subsequent rain and flooding that caused widespread damage. Over 3 million people were affected and approximately 2 million acres of crops were destroyed in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Although there is no certainty over exact numbers and likely underreporting, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were internally displaced and at least 1,000 people died.[4]

Just over a month later, Cyclone Kenneth hit Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado, a part of the country that had never been hit by a cyclone before and now experienced the strongest winds ever recorded in Africa. It destroyed over 30,000 homes and tens of thousands of acres of crops, leaving 374,000 people in need, including 20,000 who were displaced. Emergency response efforts are still underway but have been complicated by continuing insecurity in the region—an armed Islamist extremist group indiscriminately attacks residents there, making aid provision difficult and displacing tens of thousands of people. 

That the two cyclones occurred at that time of year, with this severity, and in these locations was remarkable. It is the only time since weather-related record-keeping began that two cyclones have hit Mozambique in the same season and the only known occurrence of a cyclone striking the country’s far north. In Zimbabwe, the heavy rains that accompanied Cyclone Idai were unprecedented. While it is difficult to attribute particular weather events directly to climate change, scientists representing an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community have concluded that cyclone intensity and rainfall rates are expected to increase.[5]Southern Africa must be prepared for more extreme and unusual weather. 

Strong Initial Response

The initial response to Cyclone Idai was generally swift and comprehensive, particularly in Mozambique. More than 11 countries sent military units to Beira to conduct search-and-rescue missions and provide logistical support to the aid effort. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) worked in partnership with Mozambique’s National Institute of Disaster Management (INGC) to set up an operational “command” center at the airport in Beira that directed emergency response efforts in the country. As noted by a UN staff member seasoned in disaster-relief operations, “we included the INGC in everything, all meetings. In fact, they were leading the meetings in most cases. This is one of the better examples that I have seen of international and national actors working together.”[6] 

In addition to reaching hundreds of thousands of people with food and other lifesaving assistance, a robust and coordinated effort between aid organizations and governments staved off a potentially devastating cholera outbreak in the affected countries. Indeed, several months after the storms, governments and donors already began shifting their attention away from emergency relief efforts toward longer-term recovery and development. Although this was necessary, some communities—especially those later affected by Cyclone Kenneth and those in hard-to-reach areas in central Mozambique—are still in need of significant life-saving assistance.  

Challenges for Displaced People 

Communities that were displaced face particular challenges. Between 5 and 10 percent of the population affected by the cyclones was displaced. In Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the majority of those who were displaced cannot return to their land because it was destroyed or because the government has deemed that the risk of future climate events makes it inhabitable. Meanwhile, those who were able to return to their land found their homes significantly damaged. 

In both countries, people were initially displaced to public buildings, such as schools, or with host communities, before aid organizations helped establish temporary shelters. In Mozambique, the government moved very quickly to resettle people. However, especially during the early stages, this often occurred with almost no warning and with little to no communication with displaced people about their options or how far they were being moved. 

In Zimbabwe, many those who were displaced by Cyclone Idai are still living in temporary sites or with host families.[7] Although the government has given assurances that they will be resettled permanently on new land, it is uncertain when that will be done. Both contexts present major challenges to achieving a successful transition to early recovery and long-term development.  

While in Zimbabwe, Cyclone Idai affected a relatively smaller number of people compared to that in Mozambique, but it nonetheless struck a country facing widespread food insecurity due to persistent drought and worsening economic situation. The cyclone only exacerbated those challenges. 

Disaster Risk Reduction

Prior to the storms, and with international support, Mozambique and Zimbabwe were moving forward to implement disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures to diminish the impact of natural hazards like cyclones and drought. While there is evidence that these measures may have played role in mitigating the impact of the two storms, they were inadequate to match the needs. For instance, in Mozambique, the World Bank had provided $120 million of credit for the construction of new infrastructure in coastal cities, like Beira (which was devastated by Cyclone Idai), followed by another tranche of $90 million for DRR support earlier this year. In response to Cyclone Idai, the World Bank approved an additional $545 million for Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe for such projects as rebuilding public infrastructure, re-establishing water supplies, and improving early-warning systems.[8]Reportedly, programming that prioritized smaller villages and rural households proved particularly insufficient during Mozambique’s previous DRR implementation efforts and this should be rectified in future ones.[9]  


[1] “Global Warming and Hurricanes,” Revised July 3, 2019, accessed July 31, 2019,

[2] In the case of Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, the governments and aid agencies refer to resettlement as the permanent relocation of displaced people to new land. Throughout this report, Refugees International uses resettlement to refer to this relocation of people within their own countries to new land identified by the government for long-term re-establishment of their lives. The term does not refer to refugee resettlement—also known as third-country resettlement.

[3] “Mozambique Humanitarian Response Plan 2019 (Humanitarian Response Plan) | Financial Tracking Service,” accessed August 1, 2019,

[4] For available facts and figures, see “Cyclones Idai and Kenneth,” OCHA, accessed August 1, 2019,; and “Southern African Tropical Cyclones,” USAID, accessed August 1, 2019,

[5] “Global Warming and Hurricanes.”

[7] “Zimbabwe,” DTM, International Organization for Migration, accessed August 1, 2019

[8] “Helping Mozambique Cities Build Resilience to Climate Change,” World Bank, accessed August 1, 2019,; and “World Bank Announces $90 Million to Strengthen Mozambique’s Resilience to Natural Disaster,” World Bank, accessed August 1, 2019,

[9] Amy Yee, “Mozambique Looks Beyond Cyclone Idai to Better Protection in the Future,” The New York Times, May 12, 2019,