A punk spider and a cyclone called Idai

24 03 2019

This spider was tiny, about 5mm across, but what a radical punk shape!

The first golden orb spiders appeared at the beginning of this month – well that’s when I first noticed them. I have no idea what type of spider this is in the photo (it’s nothing like a golden orb spider). It was tiny and all I had was my cellphone so it had to do. I have not seen it again.

I am always pleased to see spiders as it usually means we’ve had decent rains and there are enough insects around to feed them, but this season has been distinctly unusual. It has been typically erratic as el Niño seasons are. It started well enough a week later than usual but February, instead of being the wettest month of the season, turned out dry. That was for Harare which has been better off than most of the country which has been very dry indeed. Then two weeks ago a low pressure system developed over Malawi and caused substantial flooding. It moved off into the Mozambique channel between Mozambique and Madagascar and became a full-blown cyclone and was named Idai. Moving off it brushed the big island, turned around and headed towards the Mozambican city of Beira.

Red areas indicate flooding

It made landfall last Thursday with winds of 170km/h and hammered the city (it was estimated that 90% of buildings sustained damage). American weather forecasters predicted rainfall of around 600mm which turned out to be an under-estimate.   Photographs estimate that 3000ha just inland from the city has been flooded. A friend sent me this audio recording from someone she knows in Mozambique in the town of Chimoio (WARNING: CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE) By Friday it had started to rain in the eastern Zimbabwe town of Chimanimani. Over the next 48 hrs they received 850mm of rain – pretty much their annual rainfall. Hillsides moved, houses were washed away and bridges disappeared under the onslaught. Power lines collapsed. The death toll is still climbing and people are unaccounted for. Further south the town of Chipinge was hit by high winds. It’s a horticulture area and damage to macadamia and avocado orchards has been extensive.

The response of ordinary Zimbabweans has been amazing. Collection centres have been set up in Harare and food, blankets, utensils, water and containers have been donated. Animal welfare organizations have also donated food and international organizations have helped out. The air force sent a helicopter which promptly broke down. Engineering companies donated equipment and expertise. Private individuals have used their helicopters, motorbike enthusiasts have gone to help find alternative routes into the cut-off areas. A photo has been circulating of an old woman who walked from her home the other side of Harare to donated cooking pots – she didn’t have enough money for the bus. For once people have been queuing to donate items instead of queuing to buy them.

Zimbabwe is heavily dependent on the port of Beira for imports and exports. It’s not clear what the damage to the port is but the ramifications are going to be extensive. It was reported that the pipeline that Zimbabwe uses to import most of its fuel had been damaged. However I know someone in the fuel business and he assures me that the pipeline is not damaged but the control station for the pumps in Beira has been devastated. Fortunately it’s run by an international company that is feverishly repairing it but the word is out that we might run out of fuel and the queues at the filling stations in Harare are long and chaotic.

Two days ago some youngsters who run a vermiculite exfoliating plant came to see me. We use the vermiculite at the nursery to dilute and stretch the supply of coir pith that we use as a medium for the seedlings. There are other locally produced media, one being composted pine bark, which is collected from sawmills where it is stripped off the logs before they are sawed so the saws don’t clog. The main source is in Chimanimani and is run by the Tobacco Research Board (TRB), mainly for use in the production of tobacco seedlings. The vermiculite company had been notified by the TRB, whom it also supplies with vermiculite, that its supplies had been badly damaged and that it would not be needing much vermiculite for this season’s crop which will be sown in June. This is very bad news for the tobacco farmers who use the pine bark/vermiculite medium to grow their seedlings (most seedlings are still grown in the traditional seedbed method). Quick to spot an opportunity they were wondering if the imported coir pith (called cocopeat by the trade) that I use would be suitable for growing tobacco and could it be blended with the expanded vermiculite that they produce. Yes, it can and I have used it successfully but we are fast running out of time. It is also cheaper to use coir pith imported from India than composted pine bark from South Africa (another option). We will see what transpires. Tobacco is a big foreign currency earner for Zimbabwe and thus is considered a strategic crop.

There was plenty of warning when and were the cyclone was going to hit. It was accurate information too. Weather forecasting has come a long wMozambique Major Hurricane Historyay since cyclone Eline hit Zimbabwe back in February 2000. Cyclones, as hurricanes are known in the southern hemisphere, rapidly lose power over the land as they need water as their power source (the water is sucked up as vapour, condenses releasing latent heat of condensation which draws up more water vapour) so they rarely get as far as Zimbabwe though they can cause significant rain as far inland as Harare. There was plenty of time for an evacuation to safer ground and when asked why the government did not effect this the reply was that the opposition MDC would have used the opportunity to accuse the army and police of using force and rape to make people move.

The opposition to the government used fake news to smear. A picture was posted of a sofa being offloaded from a helicopter claiming it was for the President to sit on when making the obligatory visit. It was an unrelated photo from Malawi (I did notice the registration on the helicopter was not from Zimbabwe, South Africa or Mozambique). The President did of course make a visit and all aerial activity had to stop whilst he was there.

The Department of Civil Protection (DCP) is the government arm tasked with disaster management. Its 2019 budget is $2.36 million (local dollars) which is less than the budget for state residence staff ($3 million). Its capital expenditure budget is all of $100,000 which might just buy a 4×4 pickup. There is a $3.4 m budget allocation for a loan scheme for chiefs to buy vehicles. Not surprising where this government’s priorities lie – politics is way ahead of looking after the people.

In a way it’s quite sad that the general public, who are only too well aware of the lack of interest for the welfare of the people, stepped up to the occasion is such spectacular fashion. It effectively lets the government off the hook and they will continue to spend money on themselves. That is not to say that they will miss an opportunity to gain political capital by handing out support to favoured sectors of the affected community. This tactic has been extensively employed in the past, especially when drought relief has been necessary, which in the grandest of ironies is going to be necessary again this year.

Here in Harare we’ve had about half the rainfall we’d expect in a normal year but elsewhere it’s been far less. There’s been widespread crop failure and the WFP estimates that about 5.3 million people are at risk this year. Droughts, erratic rains and cyclones are nothing new to us in southern Africa and can be dealt with by decent planning – something that is spectacularly absent in the current government. Just a week before cyclone Idai hit a video was widely shared on the social media of a pediatrician at a big local teaching hospital in tears because even the most basic medical supplies had run out – for want of syringes chemo-therapies had to be halted. Yet still the President, E.D. Mnangagwa, took himself and an entourage off to Dubai on business and then hired a jet to fly him back after the cyclone hit. At an estimated cost of US$200,000 it could have bought a lot of syringes. Bad as the Mugabe regime was it did not have this attitude to profligate spending. No, we don’t want the Mugabe regime back but good governance would be nice. Sadly that is a quality that is rare in African politics.

 

 

 

 

 


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7 responses

24 03 2019
Susan Horcajo

It’s not that they’re African – politicians are like that. I say that speaking from the U.S., where politics has become the greatest circus of greed and corruption ever.

24 03 2019
gonexc

Yes, but you have had great leaders in the past. I agree that the current system is broken

24 03 2019
Vanda Mario

the cyclone was a devastating traumatizing episode as a fellow African and mozambican can only send love and prayers to everyone affected by the tragedy… this is something these countries may have a hard time recovering from but I have faith God will guide us through this hard time!

24 03 2019
Lin Goncalves

Your spider is awesome – it’s one of the KITE SPIDERS

25 03 2019
gonexc

Great! Aptly named. Are they common in our part of the world? It’s the first one I’ve seen.

25 03 2019
Peter

Yes I think it is a long winged kite spider – Gasteracantha versicolor – very beautiful. Find then in tropics and sub tropics but not especially common. Good sighting.

7 04 2019
josiedlecka

What an amazing, very well written, detailed report. It deserves to be published somewhere. Thank you very much.

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