Beira battled climate change, then came Idai

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Beira ‑ Long before Cyclone Idai roared in and tore apart Mozambique's seaside city of Beira, the mayor dreamed of protecting his people from climate change.

It would be a huge challenge. Large parts of the city of 500,000 residents are below sea level on a coastline that experts warn is one of the world's most vulnerable to global warming's rising waters.

With the World Bank's support, a US$120 million project was approved in 2012 to help spare the city's fading Art Deco centre and makeshift slums from rising waters. An 11-kilometre system of drainage canals and water retention basins now snakes from the beach deep into boggy neighbourhoods.

It meant "the end of suffering of a whole population", Mayor Daviz Simango declared as the project's first phase was completed last year.

But the cyclone that struck on March 14 brought a whole new level of pain to Beira, with images of destruction to chill any seaside nation already fearing for its survival.

"We were really well prepared for disasters like flooding," Simango told The Associated Press, pausing from his work directing the disaster response in one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods, Munhava.

The new system worked perfectly when there was flooding two months ago, said the mayor, a civil engineer who at times personally oversaw its construction. Residents told him they no longer needed to sleep on their tables.

Then "God changed his plan and brought a cyclone," Simango said. Packing winds of some 240 kilometres (150 miles) an hour, the storm ripped apart structures built to withstand less than half that intensity. "This cyclone destroyed everything we built for more than 100 years."

It was painful watching the cyclone veer toward Beira, said World Bank staffers involved in the project who kept in touch with people on the ground until the storm severed power and communications.

With Idai, "suddenly we have a cyclone category 4 hitting, and it's very vulnerable", Michel Matera, a senior urban specialist with the World Bank, told the AP. "Yes, we were doing the right thing but it was not enough."

Long and narrow with a 2,400-kilometre (1,500-mile) Indian Ocean coastline, Mozambique is on the frontline of fighting climate change in Africa, where most nations have little infrastructure and funding to cope. Rapidly growing coastal cities like Beira are especially at risk.

The mayor called it unjust that African nations face some of the toughest challenges while contributing little to global warming. People in rich, industrialised nations produce much of the carbon dioxide and other gases that are warming the planet by burning the most coal, diesel, and petrol and jet fuel.

But while Simango believes the international community should help African nations, he stressed the continent's leaders must do their part to fight graft and not pocket the aid.

"Sometimes we get money, resources but the corruption kills us," he said. "We must be more prepared as leaders, doing our best to use every cent to save lives."

Ordinary Mozambicans may not be familiar with the science behind climate change. But the Beira residents who pick their way through inundated streets, and the long-time fishermen who keenly watch the sea and sky, have noticed changes.

They note that local temperatures that once topped out at around 34 degrees Celsius now reach a sweltering 40 degrees Celsius. That warming air can hold more moisture, experts say, meaning the potential for heavier rains. Without extensive study, scientists cannot directly link a single weather event like Cyclone Idai to the changing climate, but global warming is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather events, as well as droughts, floods and fires.

Mozambique ranks third among African nations in vulnerability to weather-related disasters, behind Somalia and Madagascar, and studies say climate change will make those threats more intense and unpredictable, according to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, a World Bank-managed grant-funding partnership. – Nampa/AP

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