Nearly two weeks since the powerful cyclone destroyed most of the city of Beira, Mozambique, it is a long way from normal. “There’s no money, no groceries,” Alben, a fisherman, said while sitting in his wooden pirogue on a local beach. “We are suffering but trying to hold on.”
Known for its busy port and views of the Indian Ocean, the 19th-century city used to be the fourth largest in the country. Now Beira will go down in history as being “90% wiped out” by global warming, said Graça Machel, a former Mozambican freedom fighter, politician and deputy chair of The Elders, who spoke to CNN on the phone after visiting the city.
“This is one of the poorest places in the world, which is paying the price of climate change provoked mostly, not only but mostly, by the developed world,” the 73-year-old added.
Hundreds of square miles are covered by water, flooding an area so vast it can be seen from space. Only when the water recedes completely, says Machel, will Mozambique be able to count the bodies.
Cyclone Idai is only the latest extreme weather event to blight the region, affecting more than half a million people and filling humanitarian camps with tens of thousands.
“[Cyclone Idai] is a tragic showcase of what can happen in many other similarly situated towns and cities in low and middle income countries,” Denis McClean, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, told CNN. “They are vulnerable and they are exposed.”
The inequality of climate change
Meanwhile, most of the world’s richest nations are the largest emission producers — by burning fossil fuels and modern farming practices that produce climate change causing emissions.
Using climate model projections, the paper found that if global average surface temperatures reached the 1.5 or 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) limit — set by the Paris Agreement — countries like Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo would feel the changes brought on by global warming more keenly than higher latitude countries like the United Kingdom.
That is not to say that developed countries are immune to its effects.
“Wealthy countries like the United States [are] able to prepare and cope with problems like climate change better than poorer countries,” Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton Professor of GeoScience and International Affairs, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“But in some places poorer countries have actually done a better job than the United States. Because for all our worth — or our wealth, we’ve been asleep at the wheel and that’s due to bad leadership in the federal government,” Oppenheimer said.
Countries like Mozambique and Bangladesh, whose low-lying, densely populated coastal towns and cities are on the front lines of climate change, have agonized over the issue of a warming planet.
“It is quite clear that rising sea levels and warming seas contributes to the intensification of these weather events,” McClean told CNN.
The country has built anti-cyclone shelters, coastal embankments, and invested in a cyclone and flood warning prediction systems. However, its efforts are financially limited, adds Safra de Campos.
Beira, which lies below sea level, is no stranger to floods. Officials worried about the low lying city, which is filled with poorly planned settlements. It had flood defenses in place before Cyclone Idai hit.
But the cyclone’s 175 kph (110 mph) winds and and accompanying rains laid waste to Beira’s defenses — ripping the foundations of bridges, bursting riverbanks and sweeping away homes.
“High rates of poverty, a lack of resilient infrastructure, slums and a disappearance of protected infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries” create a cocktail of risk, said the UN’s McClean.
But cities, towns and villages may not stand a chance to withstand the scale and intensity of extreme weather events, which have “more or less doubled in the last 40 years,” he said.
When Super Typhoon Haiyan, which turned into a Category 5 hurricane from the warming waters in the ocean, struck the Philippines in 2013 it became one of the strongest tropical storms in history.
Filipinos had never seen anything like it, McClean said. The people in the coastal city of Tacloban could not even describe the seven-meter tidal surge that came with the storm.
“They simply did not have words to explain what was happening to them,” he said.
While it is too early to gauge the magnitude of Cyclone Idai, the UN World Meteorological Organization projects the disaster could be among the worst weather-related disasters in the southern hemisphere.
“They lost everything, including the references of their past and cultural heritage,” Machel added. “Everything is washed away….[but] the social fabric is the one which will be extremely difficult to reconstruct,” even when the roads are re-paved, she said.
As events in Mozambique, Bangladesh and the Philippines have shown, climate change is a problem of the present. Not just the future.
With reporting from CNN’s Anna Cardovillis in Mozambique and Duarte Mendonca in London.