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Mar 26, 2019 | 10:00 GMT

4 mins read

The Geopolitical Toll of Cyclone Idai in Southern Africa

Girls collect artificial flowers from the rubble of a building destroyed by Cyclone Idai at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Beira, Mozambique, on March 24, 2019.
(YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique on March 14, leaving behind it a path of catastrophic destruction that has so far taken the lives of an estimated 750 people across southern Africa. And the death toll will almost certainly climb in the coming weeks, as rescue efforts continue to help the hundreds of thousands of people in affected areas that are still in need of emergency assistance.

Picking Up the Pieces

In addition to the heartbreaking impact on people's lives and livelihoods, Idai damaged a great deal of critical economic infrastructure in the African countries that shared the brunt of its wrath. Mozambique was hit hardest by the cyclone, which the United Nations has since deemed the worst-ever natural disaster to hit the southern hemisphere, though Zimbabwe and South Africa have also been affected. And as these three countries look to pick up the pieces in the aftermath, Idai has exposed deep deficiencies within their economic and political systems that may prove hard to rectify.

The Big Picture

Natural disasters are largely unpredictable factors that can exacerbate existing geopolitical trends. And Cyclone Idai, which recently touched down in southern Africa, is no different. The cyclone's costly damage to infrastructure in the region has exposed the extent of Mozambique’s debt woes, as well as Zimbabwe’s economic troubles and South Africa’s electrical challenges. 

Mozambique's Economic and Security Troubles 

The cost of the immediate emergency response to Idai — as well as the tremendous reconstruction efforts that will follow in the months (and potentially years) to come — will curtail Mozambique's attempts to rectify its ongoing financial crisis. In addition to facing broader debt problems, the country's economy is still reeling from the financial fallout of its 2016 Tuna Bond crisis, which revealed that Maputo had $1.4 billion of undisclosed loans. 

These economic woes will also restrain Mozambique's ability to effectively respond to the areas hit hardest by the cyclone. As a result, the government will likely be forced to redeploy its security forces away from the Cabo Delgado Province (where it has been attempting to crack down on jihadist militants) to focus instead on crisis response efforts in the impacted central region of the country. 

Moreover, the disaster severely damaged the port of Beira — a critical trading port for not only Mozambique but the entire region. From Beira, fuel is also distributed to Zimbabwe, as well as parts of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A map shows the path of Cyclone Idai into Southeastern Africa.

Zimbabwe's Currency and Food Crisis

Additional import disruptions due to damage at the port of Beira risk exacerbating Zimbabwe's ongoing fuel shortages. This will, in turn, thwart the government's attempts to stabilize its economy with the implementation of its new currency

Zimbabwe's farmers have also been fighting a losing battle against an armyworm infestation, which is expected to reduce the next harvest by 50 percent. This, along with disruptions in wheat imports brought on by the country's foreign currency troubles, has set the stage for nationwide food shortages in the near future. While Tanzania and other regional actors have already begun providing food aid to mitigate such shortages, the aftermath of the cyclone now threatens to quicken the onset of a food security crisis — and potentially worsen its extent — which would require a more comprehensive international effort to respond swiftly and effectively. 

South Africa's Infrastructure and Political Woes 

Cyclone Idai also destroyed power distribution networks in Mozambique that provided more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity to neighboring South Africa. In order to prevent a complete collapse of the system, South Africa's power utilities company Eskom was forced to conduct rotational power cuts across the country for more than a week.

The cyclone's blow to South Africa's electricity system could hurt the government's bid for re-election in May by highlighting its inability to address Eskom's long history of corruption and mismanagement.

For years, Eskom has faced severe problems in generating consistent and affordable supplies of electricity, and the effects of the cyclone damage will make this even worse in the short term. The value of South Africa's currency, the rand, has already taken a significant dip amid the ongoing blackouts. In the longer term, however, the blow to the country's electricity system could hurt the government's bid for re-election in May by highlighting Cape Town's apparent inability to improve the country's infrastructure or address Eskom's long history of corruption and mismanagement.

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