At the beginning of the year, the U.N.’s regional meteorology centre warned Southern Africa and island states near the Indian Ocean to brace up for torrents of tropical storms. True to these words, in January 2022, Tropical Cyclone Ana tore across countries in southern Africa, causing a death toll of more than 80.
The island nation of Madagascar was the worst hit, with over 110,000 people affected and more than 41 recorded as casualties.
In February 2022, another cyclone hit the region but this time with double Cyclone Ana’s intensity. Considered the strongest tropical cyclone to strike Madagascar since Cyclone Enawo in 2017, Cyclone Batsirai brought deadly floods through Madagascar, Mauritius and the Réunion island, destroying over 124,000 houses and displacing about 112,000. Authorities recorded a death toll of 123.
These deadly cyclones do not merely periodically occur, they are markers of the severe impacts of climate change. According to researchers, the warming of the surface ocean from anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change is likely fueling more powerful tropical cyclones.
Tropical Cyclone and Climate Change
A tropical cyclone is an intense storm that is characterized by dangerously fast winds, and higher storm surges, that scientists believe are exacerbated by warmer sea temperatures.
A study published in 2012, suggests that the severity of tropical cyclones is a direct consequence of anthropogenic pollution and climate change. According to the study, tropical cyclones are fueled by warm, moist temperatures, and as the sea surface becomes warmer, the intensity of tropical cyclones increases.
A climate scientist, Roxy Mathew Koll, revealed that the frequency and intensity of cyclones in areas bordering the Indian Ocean are due to the fast-paced heating of the sea. According to his report, the Indian Ocean is warming at a faster rate compared to the Atlantic or Pacific, adding that the western parts of the ocean are warming at a faster pace.
The west part of the Indian Ocean bordering countries in southern Africa have a surface temperature of a maximum of 30.3°C and recorded 8 severe tropical cyclones between 2020 to 2022. By comparison, the cooler north Indian Ocean where temperatures are at 23.6°C on the maximum, recorded only 3 severe tropical cyclones over the same period.
Koll’s research shared that the Indian Ocean would continue to heat up at a faster rate in the coming years, causing more extremely severe cyclones in coastal regions bordering the west of the Indian Ocean.
Another research also predicts that sea levels could rise to 100cm by 2100, further compounding the many hazards threatening coastal regions.
Impacts Of Tropical Cyclone In Southern Africa
Countries in Southern Africa are more vulnerable to the destructive impacts of intense tropical cyclones, especially in low-elevation coastal zones in these regions. By some estimates, coastal areas in Africa tend to be densely populated due to the economic opportunities there, which can soon change because of the worsening climate situation.
Researchers predict that as tropical cyclones intensify, coastal areas would experience a decrease in food production, access to clean water will be curtailed, more harmful, acidification will spread, and the region’s already limited ability to mitigate these and related disasters will falter.
Countries like South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in southern Africa have suffered the most devastating effects of tropical cyclones in the last 5 years. Southern Africa has experienced 11 tropical cyclones from 2019 to 2022.
There are concerns that the destructive impacts of heavy rains and flooding are preventing the achievement of sustainable economic development in these regions.
Madagascar is a case in point: About 80% of people in Madagascar depend on agriculture, but their livelihoods have been disrupted because of a severe cyclone season in 2022. Crops that generate profits such as cloves, coffee, and pepper are affected. In some agricultural areas of the affected regions, it is estimated that 90% of crops will likely fail or have a below-average harvest.
About 60,000 hectares of rice fields have been destroyed by tropical cyclones in eastern Madagascar, which would cause a below-average harvest in May, negatively impacting both the farmers’ livelihoods and food insecurity levels in the country.
In 2018, cyclone Ava cost Madagascar about USD$ 130 million of damage and USD$ 156 million in losses, accounting for 2.9% of the country’s 2017 GDP.
In 2019, widespread flooding from cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique destroyed almost 780,000 hectares of crops. Malawi and Zimbabwe were also affected by the devastating effects of the floods. Over 1.85 million people in Mozambique alone were left in urgent need of humanitarian assistance – in healthcare, nutrition, protection, education, water and sanitation.
What Can Be Done?
The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa has called for climate-smart planning in all economic sectors to counter the dangerous changes posed by tropical cyclones in southern Africa.
“Sustained investments in disaster risk reduction, energy, water systems, infrastructure, and resilient nature-based ecosystems are needed to cushion Africa’s socio-economic growth, fast-track poverty alleviation, and attain a smart and climate-neutral industrialization agenda,” said Jean-Paul Adam, director of climate change at the U.N. agency.
A Foresight Africa report published in 2020 posits that adaptation is paramount for withstanding the effects of climate change. Strategies for adaptation include infrastructure construction and maintenance, beach nourishment, and diversification away from activities vulnerable to climate change. If governments undertake some of these strategies, the population exposed to flooding could be halved by 2100. Without adaptation, the annual costs related to flooding alone could range between $5 billion and $9 billion, according to the report.