Mozambique cyclone survivors face 'ticking bomb' of disease after storm

Workers offload food aid from a South African National Defence Force helicopter in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai in Buzi, near Beira, Mozambique on March 25, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRA, MOZAMBIQUE (AFP) - Survivors of a powerful cyclone that pummelled southern Africa were to begin receiving emergency medicine, food and tents on Tuesday (March 26) as floodwaters receded, while the Red Cross warned of "a ticking bomb" of disease in the storm-struck region.

Cyclone Idai smashed into Mozambique's coast, unleashing hurricane-force wind and rain that flooded swathes of the poor country before battering eastern Zimbabwe - killing more than 700 people across the two nations.

The head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Elhadj As Sy said on Monday that "we are sitting on a ticking bomb" as he called for renewed efforts to address the worsening health situation.

As logistical conditions improved and roads to affected communities have been reconnected, the full scale of the humanitarian crisis has been revealed for the first time since disaster hit on March 15.

More than two million people have been affected in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, where the storm started as a tropical depression causing deadly flooding which displaced nearly a million people.

Hundreds are still missing in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

"The conditions for rescue are improving. Yesterday, a road reopened which was really important to allow officials to work and rescue," Mozambique's Land Minister Celso Correa told reporters on Monday.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' Sebastian Rhodes Stampa also said on Monday that 30 aid missions were flying in while others were going by road "so we can really deliver volume".

"We are packing food and shelter now - they will go out (Tuesday) both north and south," he said.

In New York, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock launched an appeal to provide Mozambique with US$282 million (S$381 million) to help with relief efforts over the next three months.

Mr Lowcock told reporters that similar campaigns would be instigated in the coming days for Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Buzi, one of Mozambique's worst-hit towns located 30km south-west of the city of Beira, became reachable by road on Monday - for the first time since the storm hit.

"It will now be much faster to deliver aid," Mr Stampa added.

In Buzi, survivor Joao Zacaria said that one man who had 40 cows lost them all. "Forty, can you imagine!"

IFRC head Mr Sy, who had just returned from the region, warned of a "high risk of water-borne diseases" such as cholera and typhus as well as malaria, which is endemic in the region.

A procession of mourners carried the coffin containing the body of Mr Tomas Joaquim Chimukme, who was killed by the cyclone, through saturated marshland outside Beira.

Many of those attending wore open sandals in the water, which was ankle-high.

The UN has warned that stagnant water in many areas, decomposing bodies and the lack of sanitation in overcrowded shelters in Mozambique could create breeding grounds for such diseases.

The government has already identified some suspected but unconfirmed cases of cholera, Mr Sy said.

"That is the reason I am raising the alarm. Many of these water-borne diseases are a great risk, but they are preventable," he added.

"The worst thing is the children crying and looking for their parents... It is heartbreaking," he said, adding that it remained unclear how many children may have been orphaned.

Medical services in the affected region were stretched even before the cyclone hit and, according to aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, Beira hospital's operating theatre sustained serious damage. As many as 17 health centres have lost their roofs, it added in a statement.

The South African military has deployed several aircraft to the affected area and an EU-funded World Food Programme helicopter is supporting rescue and recovery efforts.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.