Beira: The ghost town

07 Apr, 2019 - 00:04 0 Views

The Sunday Mail

Garikai Mazara recently in Beira, Mozambique

Long before Cyclone Idai hit Beira, a first-time visitor would have been forgiven for assuming that the port city was a ghost town, for the city more or less resembled an abandoned settlement.

And still does.

The buildings, most whose paintwork — dirty-looking and weathered by time – would provide the perfect setting for a backdrop to any horror movie, would leave the said visitor in awe: could this be work in progress, did the colonisers leave a trail of destruction on evacuating Mozambique in 1975, was someone lazy to complete the civil works or could this possibly just be the way things are?

Then add the Idai dimension: a city submerged in water for close to a fortnight leaving about 80 percent of the city without electricity and water supply and with no contact with the outside world for about a week.

From the frying pan into the fire then becomes a reality.

This non-descript outlook of Beira could easily have misled some Western journalists, on arriving in the cyclone-hit port city for the first time, to conclude that “90 percent of the city had been destroyed”.

Contrast the not-so-rosy picture of pre-Idai Beira with the role that the port plays in regional trade, being one of the strategic gateways into Southern Africa, then you wonder how and why its economic activity does not translate into a colourful, picturesque city.

Last week as the city was slowly coming to terms with reality in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, probably the most devastating tropical cyclone to ever have hit the Southern Hemisphere, life on its beach-front resorts (to mean mostly the popular pubs) was a pale shadow of what life used to be like.

With the city reconnecting with the world, re-opening the regional trade route, there was something missing from the hustle-and-bustle that is usually Beira. Part of its soul was swept away by Cyclone Idai, which left a trail of destruction whose effect is still being felt across an expanse of the cyclone’s path which stretches into thousands of kilometres from Malawi, Mozambique to Zimbabwe.

Life and activity at the Machipanda-Forbes border post, which separates Mozambique and Zimbabwe, usually mirrors life in Beira. That, for the greater part of last week, there were less than 10 trucks on the Mozambican side at any given time waiting to process papers into Zimbabwe, meant that life was also static at the port city.

On any given day, the same queue for processing papers at either side of Machipanda and Forbes usually runs to at least a kilometre long.

But that is just half the story of the intrigue, fear and suspense that is the aftermath of Cyclone Idai: a cholera outbreak that threatens the social fabric of the city, the Beira-Forbes highway that is literally hanging by a thread, loss of electricity, which is making intra-city navigation a nightmare, all elements contributing to an uncertain regional trade destination.

Whilst the Mozambican Minister of Lands and Environment, Mr Celso Correia, who is leading the co-ordination of relief and reconstruction efforts in the port city, painted a picture of hope and confidence, there are genuine fears that the Beira highway, the corridor into the inner sub-region, might easily give in, if no immediate efforts are undertaken to rehabilitate the road, especially on stretches of the road where a single lane is being used.

Whilst the road has been opened to traffic, it is the use of a single lane at the Mtuchira Bridge, just before Inchope, that might be part of the concern, especially as vehicular traffic is expected to increase, putting further pressure on a bridge that was shaken by the cyclone.

Similarly, for several kilometres just before Nhamatanda, the road has been opened up for single-lane use, with the movement over that stretch being co-ordinated at the Nhamatanda toll-gate, on one end and just outside the Nhamatanda settlement, on the other.

This stretch of the highway, if not attended to in the shortest possible time, and also given that the rain season is not yet officially over, pose a real threat as it is literally hanging by the single lane that is has since been opened. Sections of the road have been eroded under, leaving the prospects of further damage high should rains fall any time soon.

Whilst the first week in the wake of Cyclone Idai was devoted to restoring normalcy, especially the re-opening up of the trade route, for many transporters it was a question of wait-and-see, as they assessed the situation on the ground.

And most of this wait-and-see attitude was on the advice of insurers, who were not keen to take any risks, without assessing the situation on the ground. To this end, most transport firms had to wait for the green light from their insurers to travel to Beira.

When it was finally announced that the route had been opened up and safe for travel, a new threat was emerging: a cholera outbreak which has so far escalated to close to a thousand confirmed cases, with a single fatality.

Relief agencies have been quick to work hand-in-glove with the Mozambican government in ensuring that the cholera epidemic is contained, as its effects could be devastating on the sub-region, where movement of people between Beira and Southern Africa is an everyday occurrence.

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