The graves of people killed during Cyclone Idai are seen in Chimanimani. Picture: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

Johannesburg - At least one million children have been affected by Cyclone Idai and subsequent floods in Mozambique, and the actual numbers are feared to be much higher, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) said on Saturday.

"We are in a race against time to help and protect children in the disaster-ravaged areas of Mozambique," Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said in a statement after a visit to Beira in Mozambique, one of the areas worst affected by Cyclone Idai.  

According to initial government estimates, 1.8 million people across the country, including 900 000 children, had been affected by the cyclone which slammed into the country last week. However, many areas were still not accessible and Unicef and partners on the ground know that the final numbers would be much higher, she said.    

“The situation will get worse before it gets better. Aid agencies are barely beginning to see the scale of the damage. Entire villages have been submerged, buildings have been flattened, and schools and health care centers have been destroyed. While the search and rescue operations continue, it is critical that we take all necessary measures to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases which can turn this disaster into a major catastrophe,” Fore said.

Unicef was concerned that flooding, combined with overcrowded conditions in shelters, poor hygiene, stagnant water, and infected water sources, was putting them at risk of diseases such as cholera, malaria, and diarrhoea.

Initial assessments in Beira indicated that more than 2600 school classrooms had been destroyed and 39 health centers impacted. At least 11,000 houses had been totally destroyed. “This will have serious consequences on children’s education, access to health services, and mental well-being,” Fore said. 

In Beira, Fore visited a school which had been turned into a shelter for displaced families. Classrooms were converted into overcrowded bedrooms with limited access to water and sanitation.

“We are particularly concerned about the safety and well-being of women and children who are still waiting to be rescued or are crammed in temporary shelters and at risk of violence and abuse. We are also concerned about children who were orphaned by the cyclone or became separated from their parents in the chaos that followed,” Fore said.

She also visited a Unicef warehouse which was severely damaged in the cyclone, causing the loss of essential supplies that had been pre-positioned before the cyclone made landfall.

Cyclone Idai started as a tropical depression in Malawi, where it forced families from their homes into churches, schools, and public buildings. Nearly half a million children were affected. After Mozambique, the cyclone moved to Zimbabwe where it caused significant damage to schools and water systems. 

“For children affected by Cyclone Idai, the road to recovery will be long. They will need to regain access to health, education, water, and sanitation. And they will need to heal from the deep trauma they have just experienced. 

"Unicef teams are on the ground in the three countries helping children learn, play, and heal, but our resources are overstretched. We will initially need [US]$30 million in the first stage of the response and look to our public and private donors to be generous to the thousands of children and families who need support,” Fore said. 

African News Agency (ANA)