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Cyclone Idai

Volume 656: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2019

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on Britain’s help for those caught up in the cyclone disaster that is afflicting southern Africa.

I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing shock at the loss and devastation following the deadly cyclone Idai across southern Africa.

Alongside the Met Office, we have been tracking this cyclone and supplies were pre-positioned in Mozambique. We have so far committed £6 million to respond to immediate needs. I am pleased to inform the House that more tents and thousands of shelter kits have now landed in Mozambique.

We have teams on the ground in each of the three countries affected, including humanitarian and relief experts. We are working with other international partners, including the UN and the Red Cross, to address immediate needs across the three countries.

This massive disaster has swept across southern Africa, affecting in particular three Commonwealth and suspended Commonwealth countries. The United Nations has made it clear that hundreds of thousands of people are affected and that this is heading towards being the worst weather-related disaster to hit the southern hemisphere.

The President of Mozambique says that 1,000 of his citizens have perished, and, as we have seen graphically on our televisions from the reporting by the BBC’s Fergal Keane, the important port city of Beira has been flattened, with almost all port structures destroyed and the collapse of bridges and roads.

In Malawi, nearly 900,000 people have been directly affected, with many having lost everything. The dangers confronting those caught up in this disaster include the loss of everything they own; the difficulty of getting food and medicines through to those affected; and the spread of waterborne diseases including cholera owing to the contamination of the water supply. The risk of starvation and famine is very real, with harvests destroyed and livestock drowned.

I am sure the Minister agrees that the UK has an important role to play given our acknowledged international leadership in this area, and she has set out some of what we have already done. The strong support and generosity that we know exist all across the UK for stepping up immediately when these hideous so-called natural disasters take place is worth bearing in mind, and so too is the huge repository of expertise that exists within the Department for International Development and British non-governmental organisations and charities. That expertise, which is respected all around the world, was greatly boosted by the report on Britain’s international emergency response so brilliantly undertaken by the late Lord Paddy Ashdown.

Will the Government note that the search and rescue response so far has been much slower than in the crisis in 2000? One of those who is today in Beira who was also there in 2000 says that the response then was 10 times as great for a much lesser disaster. Thousands of families remain stranded. A huge global response is now required and the UK has a key leadership role to discharge in that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this urgent question, which allows me to echo the sentiments that he expressed so eloquently about our solidarity with the people of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe who have been hit by what the United Nations has described as potentially the worst-ever cyclone in the southern hemisphere. My opening remarks alluded to the role played by the Met Office, which has been helpful in predicting the likelihood of the landfall location, allowing us to pre-position some food supplies, medicine, cholera kits and shelter and to help to secure a response.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the UK’s leadership in the area. We have shown leadership by being one of the first to announce additional funding to address the disaster. He will know that we already have experts deployed on the ground, and he will have heard from his contacts that the Disasters Emergency Committee will shortly announce a further appeal. The UK is playing a crucial role in assisting both our Commonwealth and suspended Commonwealth friends and in providing leadership. I was in Beira only last month and can testify to the strength of not only the bilateral relationship between ourselves and the people of Mozambique, but the link between Beira and the city of Bristol.

I begin by echoing the Minister’s feelings. This House is united in our thoughts about the tragic impact of this devastating cyclone, which may be the worst-ever disaster to strike the southern hemisphere.

I welcome the £6 million relief effort from the Department for International Development, and I am delighted to hear that it is now reaching people on the ground. However, unless immediate action is taken to halt catastrophic climate change, extreme weather events such as this will become more frequent, and the poorest people in the global south will suffer the most. This event must be a wake-up call for Governments everywhere to deliver urgently on the Paris agreement target of keeping global warming below 1.5 °C. If we are serious about that, we must start reducing our own global carbon emissions now, so what are the Government doing to ensure that that happens? Another key component of the Paris agreement was a commitment to address the devastation caused to poor nations by climate change through funding for loss and damage. What Government support is being given to fund that strand of the agreement?

Finally, Mr Speaker, Mozambique’s ability to respond and rebuild following this disaster will be seriously impaired by the country’s debt crisis, triggered by $2 billion of secret loans from London-based banks. What action are the Government taking to ensure London banks are held to account for their role in the crisis? Will the Minister work with partners to relieve Mozambique’s debt burden so that the country can rebuild?

I endorse the hon. Lady’s comments about the UK’s important leadership role on climate change. We have already committed £5.8 billion during this spending review period to work with international partners on international climate finance. We are also able to show leadership not only through our track record as one of the leading countries for reducing carbon emissions, but by sharing our technical skills, such as those in the offshore wind and solar mini-grid sectors. The week before last, we hosted an event for African Energy Ministers, and a Mozambique Government representative was in attendance. Through the City of London and the green finance initiative, we have been able to provide not only our own contribution, but a further $25 billion of green finance through more than 90 bond issues in seven currencies.

The hon. Lady referred to the role played by City of London institutions in the hidden debt scandal of a few years ago. She will appreciate that I cannot comment publicly on the specific details of the case, but I assure her that the UK will commit to ensuring that there is an investigation.

I start by declaring my interests in the region. I share the sentiments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and his sense of extreme urgency. He mentioned the cyclone in 2000 and the massive damage done to Beira, but lessons were not learned then about the need for permanent sea defences. When it comes to the reconstruction that the Minister promises, will she ensure that emphasis is put on the installation of permanent sea defences along Mozambique’s north-eastern coast?

It sounds as though my hon. Friend has also visited Beira, so he will be aware that Mozambique’s coastline is over 2,500 km long and is particularly vulnerable, but building sea defences is probably not the No. 1 way of improving the area’s resilience when a cyclone hits. Beira’s port has sustained significant damage, and the airport, where supplies are now arriving, has a reduced ability to accept flights. Indeed, many of the roads surrounding Beira are underwater. Unfortunately, heavy rain is still falling, so there is a combination of water from the sea and water from the sky. There are things that can be done to secure resilience, but building flood defences along Mozambique’s entire coastline is probably not, as my hon. Friend will know as a Norfolk MP, the most compelling option in terms of value for money.

The UN has described cyclone Idai as possibly the worst-ever disaster to strike the south hemisphere. I have visited the area and know it quite well, and it does not bear thinking about what it used to look like compared with where it is now. Although the damage and death such cyclones bring with them seem incomprehensible, this is just the beginning of the impact of increasingly extreme weather.

Last year, the International Development Committee heard from Dr Alison Doig, who noted that the UN framework for combating climate change has three pillars for averting such disasters or dealing with their impact: mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. Does the Minister agree that loss and damage of property is a huge consequence of climate change? If so, why do the UK Government allocate official development assistance spending only to mitigation and adaptation? We can no longer pretend that such events are freak accidents, because their frequency will only ever increase. Does the Minister therefore agree that we are living through a climate crisis? If so, why has that not been made a much more urgent Government priority?

Finally, on the behalf of the SNP, I express my shock and sympathy with all the families in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe who have been affected.

The International Development Committee, on which the hon. Gentleman sits, is doing important work in relation to DFID’s overall approach on climate change, and I look forward to hearing what the Committee has to say. I recently gave evidence to the Committee about the £5.8 billion of international climate finance. He will be aware that that has already helped 47 million people adapt to the impact of climate change.

A lot of the work that we are doing is about ensuring that people can be more resilient to these more extreme weather events, which climate scientists predict will continue to occur. Our work was recently praised in an assessment by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which said that we showed good strategic leadership and that our work was effective. I agree that this is an important issue on which we need to focus, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to play an important leadership role and to spend a significant amount of money in this area.

One of the longer-term effects of such disasters is the loss of the livestock upon which people depend for their livelihoods and to feed their families. My hon. Friend mentioned the Disasters Emergency Committee. There is not a single animal welfare organisation represented on the DEC. Will she ensure that that shortcoming is addressed so that when people are able to return to their homes, they can also return to the livestock on which they depend?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that, long after the waters have receded, there will be an impact on the local population’s ability to continue to have successful food markets, whether that food is livestock or maize—given that it is a particularly maize growing area. There are early reports that much of the maize crop across the three countries has been damaged. This food is an absolute staple in the region, and any damage to the maize crop and the staple diet will have ongoing knock-on effects for the food resilience of the local population. We will be working with our advisers to understand the impact of that issue, and to see where there is an additional need for programming and international leadership.

Order. I say for the benefit not just of the House, but of those observing our proceedings beyond it, that two wonderful but competing examples of seniority in the House are seeking to catch the eye of the Chair. The first is the Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is immensely senior, very distinguished and has a very busy diary. But on the other hand, sitting immediately behind her is the Chair of the International Development Committee—a man of great seniority. I therefore have to be the arbiter of competing greats. I call Harriet Harman.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the former International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), for bringing this matter to the House; I absolutely agree with all the points he raised. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

The commitment of the Minister to this issue is evident, and it is also evident that everyone is dismayed about the scale of the problem. May I ask her about people in this country who will be particularly distraught about the situation—the people who have come here from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique, who have made their home here, live and work here, bring up their children here, pay their taxes here, and contribute to our commercial and public life, but who are also contributors through their remittances to the countries affected by the cyclone? These people are desperately worried about their friends and family caught up in this situation. Will the Minister tell the House how she will engage with the diaspora communities to ensure that she understands the efforts that they are trying to make, and confirm that she will help in those efforts? Will she also inform those communities of what the Department is doing and listen to them, because they will often know what needs to be done? I pay tribute to the work of all the agencies and the Department in this very difficult situation.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for putting the sorority of Harrietts at the forefront in calling Members today.

The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) makes an important point about the links between the UK and people in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield alluded earlier. The right hon. and learned Lady also makes an important point about the ways in which we can work with the diaspora here. Let me make a commitment to hon. Members; should colleagues find it useful, I will convene a meeting with colleagues so that they have the opportunity to make representations on behalf of their constituents about what we could be doing differently to help and what information can be found about their relatives. I am happy do that through a face-to-face meeting, on the telephone or through letters of inquiry.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on bringing this important issue to the House. At a time of humanitarian crisis, the British public are always incredibly generous. What arrangements is the Minister making to ensure that the British public, who will want to contribute money, food, clothing or other means of assistance, can do so in a constructive way so that we can immediately help the people who are facing this terrible crisis, rather than delaying?

May I pay tribute to the generosity of my hon. Friend’s constituents? As I mentioned earlier, there will be a Disasters Emergency Committee campaign launch to raise money for the disaster. As we have noted, there is a need for immediate relief—the UK has been at the forefront of pre-positioning some of that relief—but there will also be an ongoing need to rebuild the communities and help with food access issues. I urge constituents who want to make a contribution to await the imminent launch of the appeal.

I welcome what the Minister has said today. As she described to the House, the Select Committee is currently looking at climate change. Rightly, today’s focus is on humanitarian relief and the immediate challenges, but of course the long-term development needs of these countries must not be forgotten. What will DFID be doing—working with other donors and the countries concerned—to ensure that Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe can rebuild after this disaster, particularly with regard to necessary health and education investment?

The hon. Gentleman is so right to point to the long-term nature of this work. Although we need to put in place a short-term response, there also needs to be a long-term strategic response. Some of the very poorest countries in the world are also some of the most vulnerable to climate change—I think Malawi is estimated to be the third poorest country in the world, and Mozambique the seventh—so those of us paying in through international climate finance have a special responsibility to do whatever we can to encourage countries such as those affected in this instance to bid successfully for those funds. That is why we had the African Energy Ministers event. As part of our new approach to Africa, we are also hiring a further 20 climate specialists across our African network to help deploy some of that finance into these particularly vulnerable countries.

Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the people of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. As has been said, this is not only about feeding and saving people now; it is also about feeding them into the future, and I am sure that the British farming community can help to get cattle and other things back into the region. One particular point that I want to raise with the Minister is about Zimbabwe, which is naturally suspended from the Commonwealth because of corruption, bad governance and a lack of democracy. It is quite right to suspend the country, but it is not the fault of the Zimbabwean people that they have such a corrupt Government. What more help can we give Zimbabwe, given that the country is very weak due to its lack of good governance and democracy?

We have always been a steadfast friend of the people of Zimbabwe. This year alone, we will have put some £84 million-worth of programming through the Department for International Development—none of which money, I must emphasise, goes through the Government of Zimbabwe but is designed to help the most vulnerable people with education, access to healthcare and some of the agricultural resilience work that I have alluded to. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to put on record the steadfast friendship between the people of the UK and the people of Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique.

This is another example of the devastating impact of climate change on the very poorest countries in the world—although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), said, we are debating the humanitarian aspect today. What will the Foreign Office be doing at the UN and other multinational organisations to press the case for not just redoubling our efforts on climate change but re-trebling them so that these incidents do not happen in future?

The other day, I was able to give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which the hon. Gentleman serves, and one of the things I talked about was our new approach to Africa whereby we are putting increased emphasis on adaptation to climate change across, in particular, the poorest and most vulnerable countries there. With regard to the UN specifically, the UK has been asked to lead the work on resilience at September’s UN climate summit, so that is a piece of work that we are taking forward to show real leadership in that area.

The Minister will know that eastern Zimbabwe, particularly around Chimanimani, has been completely devastated, with roads closed and nobody really able to get in unless by helicopter—and there are of course the special circumstances of Zimbabwe already mentioned by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). Will the Minister add just a little bit more on what our ambassador in Zimbabwe is doing and how we are making sure that we are really going to get the aid to the people who are going to need it most?

The hon. Lady, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe, will want to know that we have been at the forefront of trying to work with our partners to assess the scale of the need. The port of Beira is not just the port for a large part of Mozambique but also the port that is most used by Zimbabwe and Malawi for food imports and exports, so that is, in addition, a particular vulnerability. I understand from the early assessments that reports from eastern Zimbabwe suggest that there has been a severe degradation of the infrastructure as well, and it is very difficult to access all the afflicted populations. We cannot over-emphasise how difficult it is for us to be able to reach people. The pre-deployed kits have reached the airport at Beira, but at the moment many roads out of Beira are closed, and that will also affect eastern Zimbabwe’s response. We are at the forefront of working with partners—for example, UNICEF—in eastern Zimbabwe, and that will need to inform, after the rain has stopped, our ability to respond to some of the lasting damage there.

It is World Water Day on Friday, but for people in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, there is water everywhere but not a drop to drink. In the all-party parliamentary group on Malawi, which I chair, we have been following the effect of devastating floods that had already been hitting the country before the cyclone. The Minister might be aware that the Scottish Government have already made a donation to provide support for that, and civic society is responding as well. Specifically, what steps will her Department take to improve resilience in these countries? Because of climate change, such extreme weather events are becoming more common, so how can countries be supported before a disaster hits to ensure that there is resilience in the infrastructure?

This allows me to pay tribute to the Scotland-Malawi partnership, demonstrated by the statistic that 43% of people in Scotland know someone who is, or are themselves, part of links between Scotland and Malawi. I know that civil society across Scotland will be engaging both with these local partnerships but also more widely through the appeal. I thank everyone in Scotland for their generosity towards this cause.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the work that we will be doing on resilience, which is also for the United Nations. Resilience takes many forms, but one of the most important is the crops that are sown, the ways in which they are sown and the way that the land is used. That is an important part of the work that we are doing—helping farmers to make use of the land in a way that gives them the best resilience to these kinds of climate shocks.

As has been mentioned, Bristol’s links with the fellow port city of Beira go back a long way—in fact, back to the days of anti-apartheid campaigning when we were officially twinned. There is already a fundraising effort going on in Bristol to try to support people in Beira, but how can we best work with DFID to make sure that we can constructively share information and get the help to the people who most need it?

I thank the people of Bristol. When I was in Beira recently, I met its mayor, who personally asked me to thank everyone in Bristol for all that they do through that very strong partnership between two world-class port cities. I mentioned the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. I also mentioned, in my response to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), that I thought it would be constructive to hold a meeting for colleagues to update them. I will take forward that suggestion and invite the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) to join us.

The port of Beira has a huge role in providing access to the Indian ocean for landlocked countries as well as the three countries that are specifically hit by this appalling disaster. Zambia, for example, has a lot of trade going through that port. What steps are being taken to assess the economic implications for the region as a whole, including other countries, and for the vital humanitarian, medical and other assistance to the countries directly affected?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s extensive knowledge of these issues. He will be aware that I alluded to some of the impacts that are already apparent in terms of access to the port of Beira, and he rightly emphasises how important that port is to neighbouring countries. We are going through a process of assessment in terms of reopening the roads, which, the House should be aware, have already been built on quite high causeways, so there has already been account taken of the fact that this is a flood-prone region with many rivers flowing through it. Steps will need to be taken to ensure that there is access to the port and that it reopens as soon as possible because of the whole region’s dependence on food imports and exports going through it.

There is an increasing body of scientific evidence linking extreme weather to increasing carbon emissions. What diplomatic efforts is the Minister’s Department making, in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to make the case both to our partners around the world and to our own Government that we need to reach our net zero carbon emissions target sooner rather than later?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the work that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth is doing in having commissioned work to see how the UK can show leadership on net zero. We await what comes out of that report. He will be aware of the UK’s leadership so far in terms of our ability to have reduced our own carbon emissions very significantly. He will be aware of the programming that is being done through international climate finance, which has already helped to avoid or mitigate some 10.8 million tonnes of emissions in the atmosphere. He will also be aware that we are leading through our international networks. I mentioned the uplift in our new approach to climate change in Africa, but we will be convening the international community at the United Nations to deal with the all-important issue of resilience.

Our hearts go out to the hundreds of thousands of people across Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe who have been affected by this terrible disaster. It reminds us of the huge need to focus on the fight against climate change. I welcome what the Minister says about how important that is, but the DFID departmental plan used to list climate change as a stand-alone strategic priority, and the current version does not. In this time of climate emergency, is that not a case of getting our priorities wrong? We should be increasing the urgency of the action we take to fight climate change, not downgrading it to a subheading.

I can reassure the hon. Lady that, since climate change is a major threat to achieving the sustainable development goals, tackling it is a strategic priority for the Department for International Development. We work across the Government on this with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am glad that the independent ICAI report said that UK international climate finance shows a “convincing approach”, with some “good emerging results” in influencing others and making some good strategic choices.

We hear reports that aid trucks are stuck on impassable roads and that conditions are limiting air operations. Bearing in mind what the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said about the slowness of this response by comparison with some other disasters, what discussions are taking place to overcome those problems? I hear what the Minister says about the pre-deployment packs, but transport is always a problem, particularly in southern Africa, when there is an environmental or health disaster. What short-term and longer-term measures are the Department and the Government looking at?

I take issue with the criticism that this response has been slow. In fact, we were pre-positioning what was needed to relieve the situation in advance of the cyclone. The facts are that it continues to rain very heavily, and a lot of the access by air, water and road is severely hampered. That will be difficult to overcome, and it is at the forefront of the work that our teams on the ground are doing to provide logistic support to this operation.

I welcome what the Minister has said. As she knows, I chair the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services. Of course the focus right now is on humanitarian aid, but can she say a bit about what she can do to support constituents like mine—I have a small Malawian community in my constituency—who have family or friends there and want to travel back, and British nationals who are caught up in this horrendous disaster? What work will be done with local communities? We all have local church groups and community groups who will want to fundraise and support the people of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. What will be done to ensure that grassroots community organisations in our constituencies can contribute to support?

I thank the hon. Lady for her work on the all-party parliamentary group, and I thank everyone in Scotland and the UK for what will no doubt be a very generous response to the emergency that will be declared. I highlight the announcement that the Secretary of State made earlier this week about making it easier for small charities across the UK to access support. There have been a number of requests for a further update when colleagues have had the chance to hear from constituents who have strong links to Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. I would like to commit to the House to organise an event next Monday for colleagues, once all the casework has come in from their constituencies.