In early March, people who live along Mozambique's long coastline began to hear rumors about a cyclone.
The storm was forming in the Indian Ocean, in the narrow band of warm water between Mozambique and the island of Madagascar. Overnight on March 14, 2019, the storm struck Mozambique head-on, barreling over the port city of Beira and flooding an enormous swath of land as it moved inland toward Zimbabwe.
In low-lying, rural Buzi district, the wind arrived like an explosion. It tore the roofs off homes and schools and churches. It ripped trees out by their roots. When the floodwaters came the next day, there were perilously few high spots left where people could escape.
Those in some of the worst-hit areas were cut off for weeks. Neighbors rescued each other and did their best to help each other survive. At least 600 people died in Cyclone Idai, according to the United Nations.
Mozambique's long coastline, sprawling river delta and changing weather patterns make it susceptible to multiple hazards as the climate changes. Flooding, heat waves, cyclones and drought are all getting more frequent and severe as the Earth gets hotter.
Five weeks later, a second cyclone — this one dubbed Kenneth — hit a less populated area on the border between Mozambique and Tanzania. It was the strongest cyclone to ever make landfall in Africa.
In all, the back-to-back storms seriously affected about 2 million people.
"The example of Mozambique must be an alert for all," United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said when he visited Beira over the summer.
The disasters put Mozambique's government and citizens in the unenviable position of responding to an onslaught of climate-driven disasters while also doing their best to prepare for an even more dangerous future. They also have made clear that, absent international climate action, there's only so much that vulnerable countries can do to adapt to extreme weather.
The Front Lines
Long before the cyclones of 2019, Mozambique's government and the International Red Cross had realized that flooding was a serious problem in the country. In 2000 and again in 2013, rivers overflowed and hundreds were displaced by water.
But far fewer people died as a result of the 2013 floods. In the intervening years, Mozambique's government and the International Red Cross had studied where and how people were vulnerable to floods and other disasters, then asked community leaders to volunteer to serve on Disaster Risk Reduction Committees for their towns and neighborhoods.
Such a decentralized approach to disaster preparedness is something that the Red Cross and others argue for around the world. The idea is that local leaders learn how to prepare for disasters and help their neighbors stay safe during extreme weather events.
Such programs are not a replacement for national and international climate action, but they are nonetheless an important part of building climate resilience in many places.
By 2017, more than 14,000 people were serving on more than 1,000 local committees around Mozambique, according to the World Bank.
"I'm responsible for making sure everyone knows where the high ground is," explains Luis Josine, who has lived in the farming community of Mondiane since 1961 and became the leader of his local disaster committee when it was founded five years ago.
The tools and training he received were relatively basic: a handheld radio for weather warnings, an orange vest, a whistle and three flags of different colors.
Mondiane is near a river that's prone to flooding. In 2000, dozens of people who lived in this area drowned, Josine says.
Today when there is a flood warning, Josine goes through town blowing a whistle and waving a flag. If the flag is blue, it means a flood is likely in two or three days, he explains. If it's yellow, it means one day. If the flag is red, it's an emergency, and people should evacuate immediately.
"It is good," he says. "People listen. They know to leave and go up the road." That makes him feel proud, especially since he has noticed that the flood risk in the town of Mondiane is increasing.
"We've been noticing the climate changing here since around the year 2000," he explains. "The floods are getting bigger and more severe. The droughts are getting longer."
Climate scientists say that's in keeping with trends in the whole region and that extreme weather is expected to get more common as the Earth continues to heat up.
'We Are Really Suffering'
More extreme weather can also lead to less resilience.
"Disasters put people back into poverty," says Michel Matera, a senior analyst at the World Bank in the capital of Mozambique, Maputo. Without efforts to decrease the damage from floods and other disasters, he says, people will be "continuously trapped into poverty."
It's particularly challenging to avoid that vicious cycle when climate change drives more than one disaster in a short period of time
In the months after the cyclones drew international attention to Mozambique, another disaster was unfolding more quietly: a drought.
The rain from the cyclones had come all at once, in a torrent, but the more moderate, continuous rain that farmers rely on didn't fall in much of the country. Disaster Risk Reduction Committees worked to lessen the drought's blow.
"We collect the water, we do our farming very carefully," explains Juliet Fernando Chaque, a member of the local committee in the town of Xidwaxine.
She says the community has done a lot in recent years to cope with extreme weather, including drought. For example, the town now has a communal silo to store food, and farmers plant crops that are tolerant of drought, like sweet potatoes.
But this ongoing drought has been so extreme, it has overwhelmed their efforts. It began in 2018, and at this point, any food that residents managed to store is long gone. The soil is dry and cracked. Planting season came in September and still there was no rain. So there's almost no planting.
Women from Xidwaxine have started walking three hours to a lake where water lilies grow to harvest the plants and eat the bitter tubers at the base of the roots.
"We are really suffering," Chaque says.
Adapting to drought here will likely require comparatively big, expensive infrastructure projects to bring water out to the fields. Putting the brakes on climate change in general will require a global shift away from fossil fuels that has been slow at best.
That's a difficult reality for local leaders like Chaque, who have proudly, persistently pushed their communities to become more resilient to global changes that they cannot control.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Mozambique is particularly vulnerable to climate change. It's driving more frequent and severe cyclones, droughts and floods there. NPR's Rebecca Hersher spoke with those on the frontlines, the people living in small communities doing the best they can to adapt.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: It's November in Mozambique, and summer is almost here. It's the last week of school in the cities, which means it's well into the growing season in the countryside. But three hours outside the capital, there are empty fields.
How can you tell that it's the drought?
A Red Cross Land Cruiser bumps down a packed dirt road. In a normal year with normal amounts of rain, the Red Cross staff say the town we're going to would be inaccessible by car. My interpreter Velsoma Alfredo explains.
VELSOMA ALFREDO: It would be a lot of mud even to cross. It wouldn't be possible.
HERSHER: Oh, interesting. So it's usually very wet.
HERSHER: There are about 100 families in this town, all farmers. On this particular morning, representatives from about half the families have gathered in the center of town for a meeting, which begins with a prayer of thanks.
LUIS JOSINE: (Chanting in Changana).
HERSHER: The man who leads the prayer, Luis Josine, has lived in town since 1961.
JOSINE: (Through interpreter) We've been noticing the climate changing here since around the year 2000. The floods are getting bigger and more severe. The droughts are getting longer.
HERSHER: The two are linked. This time of year, heavy rain is common in much of Mozambique. When lots of rain falls on hard, cracked soil, it doesn't really soak in. It runs off in a flood. The water can destroy homes and endanger livestock. Over the years, people in this town have died in floods. So a few years ago, Josine took action to protect himself and his neighbors. He volunteered to run a disaster risk reduction group for his town. That meant he was one of the hundreds of local volunteers who registered with Mozambique's Government Disaster Office and got training from the local Red Cross.
JOSINE: (Through interpreter) I'm responsible for making sure everyone knows where the high ground is.
HERSHER: It's actually hard to tell in some places. That's how flat it is here. But it makes a huge difference to get it right. Josine also has a handheld radio that he can use to find out when there's a flood warning for this area.
JOSINE: (Speaking Changana).
HERSHER: When there's a flood warning, he goes around town with a flag and a whistle to get people's attention. My interpreter explains a blue flag means there's a flood predicted in the next two to three days. Yellow means one day.
ALFREDO: And the red one, it's when the water is already here.
ALFREDO: And it's like, we need to leave now.
HERSHER: He says since he started using the warning flags, people have been more careful about getting themselves and their animals to high ground before the water arrives. So even as the flood danger here has increased, the damage has decreased, which he says makes him feel good. Seemingly small local efforts like this one are an important part of Mozambique's overall effort to be more resilient to climate change.
Michel Matera works on flood resilience projects at the World Bank office in the capital. He points out that most of Mozambique is very flat with a large river delta and long coastline.
MICHEL MATERA: So it's difficult to think that we could just not be in areas that will never be flooded because those areas are limited.
HERSHER: People are going to live in flood-prone areas, whether it's on farms or in coastal cities, so making it possible to live there more safely is really important in part because the more damage a flood does, the more it destabilizes peoples lives. For people who are doing a lot with a little, that shock can mean the difference between being OK and starving.
MATERA: Having the shock is something we need to address. If not, we will have people continuously be trapped into poverty.
HERSHER: Trapped by multiple types of disasters because flooding isn't the only hazard that's getting worse in Mozambique. According to the United Nations, prolonged drought is both the most common and the most devastating effect of climate change here, and it doesn't get the headlines that cyclones and floods do.
OK, so what is the next town called?
The Red Cross Land Cruiser leaves the first town, Mondiane, and we drive about half an hour to a slightly larger community up the road called Xidwaxine. Juliet Fernando Chaque has also lived in her town her whole life, and she also joined her local disaster risk reduction committee to help her neighbors.
JULIET FERNANDO CHAQUE: (Speaking Changana).
HERSHER: She says she and her neighbors have been doing all the drought-related things the government suggests - collecting rainwater, planting drought-resistant crops like sweet potatoes, avoiding burning down trees to make new fields. But it's just been too long without rain. There's not enough food.
CHAQUE: (Speaking Changana).
HERSHER: What we do, she says, is now we walk three hours to a lake with water lilies in it. They pull out the water lilies by their roots. Another woman brings one over to show me.
It's the bottom?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Changana).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Changana).
She bites into the hard bulb at the base of the plant and grimaces. It kind of looks like a turnip. It tastes bitter, Juliet Chaque explains.
CHAQUE: (Speaking Changana).
HERSHER: We are really suffering, she says. She's proud of the work that she and her neighbors are doing to be more resilient, but it's just not enough. It's hard to imagine how it could ever be enough. This is just one town, she's just one woman, and the drought has just gone on too long.
Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.