Cyclone Idai: A wake up call for long term investments in nature

Maxwell Gomera believes investing in nature honours those who perished in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe and safeguards their descendants

Sunday 07 April 2019 17:34
Comments

In mid-March, Cyclone Idai, the ‘worst cyclone and weather-related disaster to hit the southern hemisphere,’ killed thousands of people and left millions homeless across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The level of devastation caused by Idai was difficult to fathom, especially for those of us who are only a step removed from the area.

I began my career in the village of Kopa in Chimanimani district of Zimbabwe, one of the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Idai. I lived there for a year, seeking to strengthen an outgrower scheme for tea farmers: the Rusitu Valley Smallholder Tea Pilot Project. Kopa is in an idyllic setting in Rusitu Valley, nestled between beautiful mountains with softly alluring contours and rich soils. It boasts both scenery and accessibility to relatively vast farmlands. No wonder then that it attracted so many farmers who established thriving enterprises, homes and families.

It is this splendor of Kopa and the villages and towns like it across the region that deepens the tragedy of March 15 when 1.85 million lives were viciously and abruptly changed, forever.

Though of unprecedent magnitude in Southern Africa, globally cyclones such as Idai are no longer the rare, random occurrences they once were. They are now the new norm resulting in massive destruction. Across the globe, in the past 20 years, 90 percent of major disasters have been caused by weather-related events such as extreme floods and devastating droughts.

Idai compels us to confront the reality that climate change most adversely affects the poorest, unprotected and vulnerable communities, including smallholder farmers. This despite the fact that these communities contribute so little to the leading causes of climate change. These farmers have a high reliance on climate-sensitive livelihoods, such as rain fed agriculture, and they live in densely populated areas prone to floods, cyclones and droughts. Widespread degradation of ecosystems and high rates of biodiversity loss increases this vulnerability.

So far, there have been few measures taken to protect farmers and their communities from the increasing precariousness of nature. On the contrary, destructive development processes have heightened the risks of climate change. In Zimbabwe, large scale commercial projects have seen forests and woodlands become extensively degraded and converted into agricultural land. About 80 percent (264,000ha) of the deforestation rate is due to conversion of forest for agriculture, while tobacco curing using firewood contributes a further 15 percent, and the remainder for firewood.

Now, to minimize vulnerability to future events, governments in Southern Africa must take a stand for the lives and dignity of their citizens by investing in long-term adaptation that can reduce the impacts of cyclones and other disasters. Nature-based solutions, such as conserving forests, wetlands and planting new trees, which can provide natural flood defenses, can be particularly effective. Investments in nature can help communities prepare for, cope with, and recover from disasters, including sudden cyclones like Idai or slow-onset events such as droughts.

There already are more sustainable approaches that Southern African governments can adapt, including those from West Africa. Many countries have already recognized that investing in ecosystem management is key to successful longer-term climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. In West Africa, eleven governments have committed to establishing a Great Green Wall comprising 8,000km of forest across the entire width of Africa.

To date roughly 15 percent of this has been planted and is already bringing life back to some of Africa’s most degraded landscapes, providing food security and jobs for farmers. Once complete, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet.

Globally, the growing consensus is that management of ecosystems, such as forests, pays off in terms of longer-term resilience to climate change. For example, more than 3,200 of the world’s largest cities could significantly improve their water quality and quantity through nature-based solutions, at a cost of less than US$2 per person annually.

Some might argue that investing in nature-based solutions is a luxury that countries facing competing and urgent development priorities cannot afford. But, if so, the alternative is to continue rolling dice and at best hope for timely humanitarian relief when disaster ultimately strikes. Although emergency measures are critical in times of disasters and require continued efforts, Southern Africa must move from reactive to proactive risk reduction, from dependency to self-reliance.

Investments in nature-based solutions can help countries be better prepared for otherwise capricious disasters that may be ‘invisible’ until a crisis point is reached, requiring far greater resources to address the damage.

When I think of the farmers Kopa, who worked hard and had beautiful dreams for themselves and their children, their memory compels me to encourage measures to protect nature for present and future farming communities. The farmers of Kopa produced some of the best tea in the world. Wherever you call home, if you drink tea, chances are you too have been a guest of these humble farmers. To honor their memory and protect their children, the global community must now invest in long-term adaptation measures and safeguard the hope and promise of generations who deserve a chance to live out their dreams.

Maxwell Gomera is a Director of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Branch at UN Environment and a 2018 Fellow of Aspen New Voices. He is an expert on public investments in agriculture and nature. Twitter: @GomeraM

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in