Comparing Recent Floods In Africa & USA & How Resources & Warnings Are Key To Saving Lives
Blog by Nick Finnis
22nd March 2019 18:28

Comparing Recent Floods In Africa & USA & How Resources & Warnings Are Key To Saving Lives

There are few forces in nature that are as powerful as floods, whether caused by hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones, slow-moving weather systems, flash floods from intense storms or from tidal surges.

Devastating flooding events occur frequently across the world. They have always happened, but their frequency appears to be rising and the devastating impacts on lives and infrastructure are increasingly taking their toll on developing countries ability to cope financially. This is likely down to climate change, climate scientists are clear: storm, cyclones and floods will worsen as the planet warms. But whether this down to AGW or not is not what this blog will discuss.

Above: Humanitarian risk hotspots for flooding. Source:

Devastating flooding events obviously affect both developed and developing countries, with large areas of land in parts of central USA under water over recent days, while in eastern Africa Cyclone Idai has brought catastrophic flooding to Mozambique along with parts of neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi. Some countries are prone to flooding events, on an annual basis, such as in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Brazil – often the result of the seasonal monsoon rains. However, some extreme weather events are not predictable well in advance so are less easy to plan for, such as Hurricanes, Cyclones or Typhoons – depending which parts of the world. Storm systems or slow-moving low pressure systems can also bring flooding rains.

However, the vast majority of lives lost or affected by natural disasters are in developing countries. Poor governance, external sanctions, poverty, and foreign debt force farmers to burn wood for fuel and to engage in unsustainable farming techniques that drive deforestation that can exacerbate flooding. Poverty also results in migration to densely populated urban areas exposed to rivers bursting their banks, landslides or sea flooding low-lying urban areas. But, also, those poor living outside urban areas often live in housing that is poorly built and can be easily damaged in the event of a disaster. These poorer developing countries are not equipped with early warning systems, and they have few assets and a weak social safety network to help them cope with disasters.

So, I will look at two recent flooding events, one affecting central USA the other affecting southern Africa that have been in the news along with the impacts they will likely have in the coming days and how they have been dealt with. Early warning and resources already in place appears to be the crucial thing to save lifes in the immediate emergency flooding brings, something many developing countries lack in.

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Central USA

Parts of central U.S.A, particularly large tracts of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, have been underwater since a record-breaking deep ‘bomb’ cyclone developing over the central Plains brought heavy rains which triggered massive snowmelt, following snow cover 200% above normal. Excessive run-off from the heavy rains combined with snowmelt has led to the severe flooding. The flooding has led to several deaths, the evacuation of an entire town in Missouri and over $1 billion in damage thus far.

The devastating flooding so far is set be a prelude to “unprecedented” levels of flooding across the US in the coming months that could affect up to 200 million people from flooding, federal government scientists have warned. This is because of a combination of the floodwaters working downstream to affect other more southern states along with further heavy spring rainfall likely falling on river catchments as storms increase towards their Spring peak across central USA through April and May as the continental landmass heats up. However, much of the Mississippi and Missouri river catchment areas could be prone to major or moderate flooding over the next few months, thanks snowmelt and further heavy rains according NOAA.

Floodwaters are beginning to recede across Nebraska and Iowa, with residents affected by flooding returning to start the cleaning up and starting over process. The flooding has also taken a heavy toll on agriculture, having inundated thousands of acres of farmland, threatening stockpiled grain and killing livestock. Water and sewer problems caused by the flooding continued on Tuesday in regions throughout Nebraska. The shortage of fresh water forced residents and businesses to ration water or resort to using portable showers and toilets. President Donald J. Trump declared that a major disaster exists in the State of Nebraska and ordered Federal aid to supplement State, tribal, and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by a severe winter storm, straight-line winds, and flooding beginning on March 9, 2019, and continuing. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.

Now, compare this with the flooding and relief efforts in Mozambique, same devastating impacts on property and land, but different ball game in terms of fatalities, impacts on peoples lives, the help they receive and how they rebuild their lives from now on.

Devastating floods across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi caused by Cyclone Idai

More than 480 people are confirmed dead and 400,000 have lost their homes to Cyclone Idai. Even though the cyclone made landfall near the Mozambique port city of Beira over a week ago, aid agencies are warning the disaster is getting worse.

The flooding heavy rains from the cyclone submerged low-lying Beira, but other areas are at risk of becoming submerged as rain continues to fall and cause most of the rivers that flow towards the Indian Ocean to burst their banks and flood large tracts of land. Floodwaters in parts of Mozambique are expected to rise by up to 8 metres, putting at least 350,000 people at risk. With similar problems in Zimbabwe.

As well as the issue pointed out above about large amount of poor people living in poorly built houses and forced to live in areas prone to flooding, there is an outbreak of cholera could lead to the death toll increasing dramtically. Cholera is spread through human waste leaking into the water supply. With many people finding increasingly hard to find a clean water supply due to infiltration or damage to clean water supplies caused by the flooding. Other waterborne diseases like typhoid and malaria also pose a risk. Getting relief teams to bring clean water or water purification tablets to areas affected is the biggest challenge in the relief effort, due to land routes cut-off by flooding with the only way to get to stranded people by air or water. The limited resources and money poor countries such as Mozambique have for dealing with such natural disasters only compounds quick relief efforts to safe people.

There is also the dilemma of starvation, because although limited food and water is being air-dropped to communities, to keep starvation at bay for a few weeks, longer term there risk of food insecurity from failed crops flooded by Cyclone Idai.

Mr Cernuschi explains that the cyclone has compounded a crisis that was already there.

He says drought in parts of Zimbabwe had already written off an estimated 75% of crops in the areas affected by the cyclone.

"Whatever crops that were being grown despite the drought have now been destroyed in the floods," he says.

He warns of a food insecurity crisis in the next six to 12 months - when people will face starvation as a result of the cyclone destroying their crops.


Foreign aid is starting to trickling into Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi most affected by Cyclone Idai, The United Nations allocated $20 million for a humanitarian response to the crisis. The European Union released 3.5 million euros in emergency aid, while the U.K. pledged up to £6 million.

Conclusion: lives could be saved in developing countries if there are early warnings and the resources are already in place when the flooding begins

Throwing lots of money at the African countries affected by Idai does not save so many lives in the immediate wake of flooding, if there is not the advance warning getting through to evacuate communities, enough helicopters or doctors in the first place, due to these countries not being able to afford them, then the initial emergency phase of such a natural disaster will ultimately mean more lives lost than if there were greater resources in place. The cash donations may help alleviate the long term issues of rebuilding and food security.

Meanwhile, in the USA, further flooding likely to occur in the central states neat the great Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the next few months. But the resources are already in place and the advance warnings transmitted to various outlets there to evacuate people and prevent lives lost and the emergency federal and state aid there to rebuild peoples homes, lives or businesses in the aftermath.

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