Climate change and disaster management in Zimbabwe


Compiled by Michelle Matsvaire, Rodrick Moyo and Byron Zamasiya-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association

Zimbabwe was hit by another cyclone in January 2021 at a time when the country was taking stock of the damage by cyclone Chalane. Cyclone Eloise reached Zimbabwe after weakening into a tropical storm. Prior to its arrival, the Civil Protection Unit and the Meteorological Services Department were warning people of the threats of floods from this cyclone. Although the cyclone reached Zimbabwe in a weakened state, it still   caused massive flooding, and destroyed infrastructure across rural and urban areas. In urban areas such as Mutare, Gweru and Harare, massive floods were experienced with the effects being disproportionally felt by households in illegal settlements. Flooding instances like those witnessed during the reign of Cyclone Eloise raise essential questions on whether Zimbabwe should continue with the business-as-usual view to climatic disasters as inevitable ‘acts of God’. In our view, the increased climate-induced disasters in the country call for an urgent need to relook at our disaster preparedness and response strategies, especially considering this year which some have termed a “Year of Cyclones and Depressions for Zimbabwe”.

Over the years, studies have shown that this ‘change of climate, which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere’[1] is a risk multiplier[2]. Climate change poses vulnerability beyond social control. Therefore, governments must put in place measures to ensure that people exposed to risk or those affected receive protection. While it is appreciated that natural hazards are inherently non-discriminatory, certain areas due to their geographical location are prone to experience greater devastation levels compared to others. There are some areas that are already known to be prone to flooding. These areas include Tsholotsho-which once used to be a saturated basin. Beitbridge, Gokwe North district, Chipinge district, Middle Sabi and Chimanimani district. Figure 1 depicts some of the areas that are prone to flooding in Zimbabwe. Despite the vulnerability of these areas being known, it seems authorities are disregarding this information in terms of disaster preparedness.

Figure   1: Distribution of areas which are historically prone to flooding in the country.

Legal provisions for disaster management in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s Constitution provides for equality and non-discrimination in Section 56. The Constitution states that all persons have the right to equal protection and benefit of the law[1]. The Civil Protection Act [Chapter 10:06] regulates all disaster management in Zimbabwe. The Act was designed to establish a civil protection organisation and provide for civil protection services in times of disaster. “Disaster” in terms of the Act is defined as ‘any— (a) natural disaster, major accident or another event howsoever caused; or (b) destruction, pollution or scarcity of essential supplies; or (c) disruption of essential services; or (d) influx of refugees; or (e) plague or epidemic of disease; that threatens the life or well-being of the community.’ As is apparent from the definition, ‘disaster’ covers a wide array of events that in the current context of Zimbabwe covers the COVID-19 pandemic. The question that must be considered is whether the Civil Protection Act has adequate scope to deal with climate change-related disasters or it only has peripheral coverage due to its comprehensive mandate due to the broad definition of disaster.

Shortage of disaster risk preparedness results in destruction from natural hazards.

Natural hazards in themselves do not cause disasters. A disaster occurs when a natural hazard falls on an ill-prepared or exposed community. As such, the severity of the disaster depends on the degree of vulnerability. In Zimbabwe, several factors can be attributed to the vulnerabilities of communities. These include increased levels of urbanisation encroaching restricted areas, inadequate drainage systems in urban areas, disposal of uncollected household garbage in water drains and poor infrastructure.  The extent of devastation caused by climate change-induced disasters in Zimbabwe lies again in the laws, institutions, and policies in place. The absence of a specific climate change law aggravates the inadequate focused studies into what hazards are being exacerbated by climate change in Zimbabwe and the subsequent effects on communities. Consequently, there is insufficient correlated funding to invest in advanced early warning systems or to mitigate climate change effects.

What then can be done for Zimbabwe to enhance its disaster management for climate change-induced disasters?

The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) provides a framework that can help address disaster management. The UNIDSR defines disaster reduction as the action that is taken to reduce the risk of disasters and the adverse impacts of natural hazards, through systematic efforts to analyse and manage the causes of disasters, including through avoidance of hazards, reduced social and economic vulnerability to hazards and improved preparedness for adverse events. In light of the floods, Zimbabwe needs:

  • a core body that looks at climate change more profoundly and defines disaster from a climate change-induced lens in the Zimbabwean context. Disaster management requires a multi-faceted and multi-sectoral approach, and such a body should be able to derive expertise and collaborative strengths from the existing institutions.
  • To conduct scientific studies that focus on understanding how disasters differentially affect the country’s population and the different demographics.
  •  to establish the real risk drivers that exacerbate a disaster’s effects.
  • Policies and laws that deal with disaster management that is a result of climate change in Zimbabwe. These would include adaptational strategies aimed at precautionary planning to reduce the extent of devastation of disasters.

[1] See Section 56 (1) of the Zimbabwean Constitution

[1] Article 1 (2) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

[2] See Christopher Field et al (ads), Managing the Risks of Extreme Evets and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (CUP 2012) pg. 458

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