Cyclone Idai: UNICEF warns of ‘race against time’ to protect children, prevent spread of disease in flood-ravaged Mozambique

UNICEF/UN0291728/Prinsloo In Beira in Mozambique, (left) UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore speaks with internally displaced people as she visits a secondary school used to shelter evacuees from Cyclone Idai.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


A week after the flooded Mozambican port of Beira was hit by Cyclone Idai, “aid agencies are barely beginning to see the scale of the damage”, the head of UNICEF said on Saturday, as she called for more international support to help quickly get relief to more than a million people across the country and prevent the possible spread of waterborne diseases like cholera.

We are in a race against time to help and protect children in the disaster-ravaged areas of Mozambique,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said at the end of a visit to Beira, one of the areas worst affected by Cyclone Idai.

According to initial Government estimates, 1.8 million people across the country, including 900,000 children, have been affected by the cyclone which slammed into the country last week. However, many areas are still not accessible and UNICEF and partners on the ground know that the final numbers will be much higher.

“The situation will get worse before it gets better,” Ms. Fore said, noting that as aid agencies get a clearer picture of the devastation, some have reported that entire villages have been submerged, buildings have been flattened, and schools and health care centers have been destroyed in the days since the storm struck.

“While the search and rescue operations continue, it is critical that we take all necessary measures to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases which can turn this disaster into a major catastrophe,” she warned.

UNICEF said it is concerned that flooding, combined with overcrowded conditions in shelters, poor hygiene, stagnant water and infected water sources, is putting them at risk of diseases like cholera, malaria and diarrhoea.

Initial assessments in Beira indicate that more than 2,600 classrooms have been destroyed and 39 health centers impacted. At least 11,000 houses have been totally destroyed. “This will have serious consequences on children’s education, access to health services, and mental wellbeing,” the UNICEF chief said.

In Beira, Ms. Fore visited a school which had turned into a shelter for displaced families. Classrooms were converted into overcrowded bedrooms with limited access to water and sanitation.

Safety of women and children a major concern

“We are particularly concerned about the safety and well-being of women and children who are still waiting to be rescued or are crammed in temporary shelters and at risk of violence and abuse,” she said, also raising concerns about children who were orphaned by the cyclone “or who became separated from their parents in the chaos that followed.”

Ms. Fore also visited a UNICEF warehouse which was severely damaged in the cyclone, causing the loss of essential supplies that had been pre-positioned before the cyclone made landfall.

Cyclone Idai started as a tropical depression in Malawi, where it forced families from their homes into churches, schools and public buildings. Nearly half a million children are affected. After Mozambique, the cyclone moved to Zimbabwe where it caused significant damage to schools and water systems.

“For children affected by Cyclone Idai, the road to recovery will be long,” Ms. Fore said. “They will need to regain access to health, education, water and sanitation. And they will need to heal from the deep trauma they have just experienced.”

She said that UNICEF teams are on the ground in the three countries helping children learn, play and heal, “but our resources are overstretched. We will initially need $30 million in the first stage of the response and look to our public and private donors to be generous to the thousands of children and families who need support.”

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