The economic cost of Cylone Idai has yet to be quantified, the Government rightly at this point being more concerned about immediate aid to the communities and families hit, but the final total should not be that high, no more than 1 percent of the national budget and probably less.
So the money to put the Chimanimani and Chipinge districts back on their feet can be found. This will require a bit of juggling at the Treasury, but we saw what can be done when cholera hit Harare last year. Budgets were juggled, some spending was postponed, adequate extra money for health services and emergency repairs to infrastructure was found and the mess was cleaned up quite quickly.
This is what is required, on a larger scale, in Manicaland, and while the repair and reconstruction work is in progress, the lessons learned from the cyclone can be applied so that if the worst happens and another cyclone or some other natural disaster hits then lives can be saved and damage limited.
The present emergency phase uses the defence forces a great deal, for the obvious reason that they are trained and equipped to move people and supplies across the devastation of a battlefield. And while cyclone damage can be just as bad as a bombarded battlefield at least no one is shooting. Health and other emergency staff have also been trained for this sort of emergency and can operate in the extreme conditions.
But then will come the hard grind of putting the districts back together. At the same time longer-term support will be needed for the hit communities; for a start Idai slammed into the area around harvest time adding to the woes.
But much of the two can go together. Repairing and rebuilding infrastructure requires a core of skilled staff, and no doubt the other provincial road engineers will be seconding some key personnel to their Manicaland colleague as he assembles his required teams. However the bulk of the labour force needed will be day labourers, people who can use a pick and shovel, push a wheelbarrow, collect debris, move logs and rocks and so on.
It must be an essential policy that these temporary workers are recruited from the nearby communities. For a start it is cheaper to hire people who can live at home and walk to work. But more importantly we can then make every dollar pumped into the rebuilding do a lot of work: repairing the damage, providing income for families who have lost everything and reviving trade and business in the devastated areas.
Indeed we hope that others besides the Government will follow a similar policy, from Zesa needing workers who can dig new holes for poles and cart away broken branches to those who will be rebuilding or repairing damaged buildings. This does not mean that a lot of emergency aid will be required, since there are the children, the old and other vulnerable people, but it does mean that the communities will be involved in putting together their infrastructure.
At the same time planners and others must be involved in ensuring that we do not rebuild villages in areas that can be swept by floods. Experts continually advise against building on low ground near rivers; they always advise that hill slopes should be protected and anchored by trees; they advise just how strong flood waters moving at speed can be. People tend not to listen too hard, because it is inconvenient to live 1km from your fields, or to walk an extra kilometre to a safe river crossing point, or to surrender dubious pasture to grow a productive wood.
But now people have seen what can happen they will listen. We saw this again in Harare with the cholera. In the first outbreak there was a lot of ignorance and wishful thinking. In last year’s repeat everyone knew what to do and did it right, from individual families right up to the central Government. That knowledge, that experience, that joint effort by community, local Government and central Government kept the death toll right down.
It will be the same in Chimanmani and Chipinge. The shattered communities, as they rebuild, will remember and so will listen to expert advice. That in turn means, of course, that the expert advice must be available and that the experts are willing to examine community needs and figure out solutions rather than just impose a textbook solution.
Villages will need to be moved. But in most cases it should be possible to move and rebuild on a site that offers minimum inconvenience but maximum protection. And that in turn means combining the local knowledge of the affected community with the maps, surveying equipment and scientific knowledge of the experts, a programme that is all perfectly obvious but not always applied. In the two worst affected districts at least this time the communities will be seeking advice, rather than just ignoring it, and the experts need to respond swiftly in a sensible way.
At the same time it has become clear that we need to upgrade our disaster planning from general principles and a reasonable level of expertise at provincial and district level to ensure that every community has at least one person with some knowledge of what to do when the skies fall.
This is not difficult, although it does need planning and willing volunteers.
But the people should now understand. As everyone who has been in a sticky situation realises, the biggest terror is not knowing what to do. Many of us have stood helpless at a bad accident not knowing how to help and then meekly accepted precise orders when a passer-by states they have a first aid certificate and tells us what we must do.
So while the cyclone was a disaster, it is also a lesson. When the next one hits, and it will, we must ensure that the communities can cope and that what we have learned from this cyclone, from community to national levels, is applied.