Mapping Legal and Human Rights Challenges in the Aftermath of a Natural Disaster: The Case of Cyclone Idai In Zimbabwe

The first quarter of 2019 has been very difficult for the people of Zimbabwe. In January, the country witnessed protests that were violently put down by the State leading to the death of over 10 people and hundreds of injuries and arrests. During the weekend of 15 – 18 March 2019, Zimbabwe was hit by a tropical cyclone / typhoon / hurricane. The tropical cyclone named Idai, left a trail of destruction and human fatalities in the eastern parts of the country. Tropical cyclone Idai also left a trail of destruction in Malawi and Mozambique.

The objective of this piece is to highlight some of the possible legal and human rights challenges that are most likely to beset poor and vulnerable communities that lay in harm’s way during the course of this natural disaster. In times like these legal and human rights challenges usually take a back seat at the expense of the more urgent need for food, medical supplies, shelter and clothing. However, after the immediate after-math of natural calamity, the demand for legal empowerment and human rights advocacy on behalf of the affected communities will become paramount.

For colleagues on this platform to understand the gravity of this subject, I have to put into perspective the degree of destruction and loss of human life caused by cyclone Idai. As of the 18th of March 2019, the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) indicated that 98 people had died, 217 are missing, 102 are injured and 42 were reported to be marooned. The President of neighbouring Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi, on the same day also reported that his country was expecting the death toll to top 1 000.

As already intimated in this article, this installment will focus on the legal and human rights challenges that are likely to affect the poor and vulnerable in Zimbabwe that are directly affected by the cyclone. It is also important to highlight here that the same challenges may also befall the same constituency in neighbouring Malawi and Mozambique. Possible challenges are as follows:

  1. Accessing certificates of death for the deceased – the Zimbabwean government has sent out notices to the effect that survivors resident in inaccessible areas should bury the dead without following the necessary official processes and procedures of interring the remains of the dead due to lack of morgues or mortuaries to keep the dead. This is likely to present a challenge to the surviving spouses or children or relatives in accessing certificates of death since the official processes of disposing human remains would not have been followed.

  2. Accessing (citizenship) national identity documents for orphaned minors - for some of the deceased who had not acquired birth certificates or other national identity documents for their surviving minor children, it will be difficult for the surviving spouse or relative to access these without a certificate of death.

  3. Managing the estates of the deceased – in light of family and inheritance laws it will be difficult for surviving spouses and children to lay claim to the estate of the deceased without the certificate of death. This challenge will probably expose the vulnerable spouse and children to the dictates of customary law, which at times dis-empower minors and women. However, section 80 (3) of the Zimbabwean constitution elaborates the rights of women in cases were customary law is in conflict with constitutional provisions.

  4. Accessing lost (citizenship) national identity documents – some of the survivors of this tragic natural disaster have lost their national identity documents. Depending on the circumstances of each individual, for some it will be relatively easy for them to access national identity documents that help them lay claim to citizenship. For others it will be a difficult if not impossible to regain the same documents.

  5. Access to land and resettlement – most survivors of this cyclone will need to be resettled in new areas as a result of two reasons. The first reason being, their current arable land is covered by immovable rocky debris from rockfalls and mudslides. The second reason stems from the fact that these people where settled in low lying areas that are prone to flooding. Therefore in an attempt to mitigate the effects of natural disasters of this nature in future, our people need to be moved from harm’s way. However, from past experiences were natural disasters of this nature have occurred, the government has been slow in resettling the affected poor and vulnerable farmers. For those familiar with Zimbabwe, the Chingwizi case from Masvingo is an apt example.

  6. Securing the rights of subordinate and vulnerable groups – the constitution of Zimbabwe elaborately guarantees the rights of women, children, the elderly and people living with disabilities. In times of national tragedies, subordinate and vulnerable groups are often neglected, abused and not heard. In the wake of cyclone Idai, it is prudent for human rights defenders to keep an eye out for the vulnerable.

Noting that the governments of Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have already put out a clarion call for the international community and development partners to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected, it is prudent for local and international human rights actors to also cue up with legal empowerment assistance for affected communities. Further, it goes without saying that small local non-governmental organisations that are at the forefront of providing legal empowerment support in the affected areas may well have been adversely affected by the disaster to an extent that they have lost offices, furniture, staff and volunteers.


Much love to all those in Southern Africa affected by the cyclone. Thank you @paulsixpence for stating a vital principle in such clear, practical terms: responding to a disaster is as much about justice and rights as it is about relief.

We are keen to hear how yours and other legal empowerment groups in the region are working to respond to the specific challenges you outline.

You might find of interest a paper by @ericaharper , “Promoting Legal Empowerment in the Aftermath of a Disaster,” which evaluates work done after the tsunami in Indonesia. Erica’s essay is in this book.

In solidarity,



Many thanks @vivekmaru for your message of support.

To be honest, we did not anticipate that the Cyclone will have such a devastating impact and hence here at CSMA and probably other legal empowerment organisations we were caught unawares.

Nevertheless, we have joined a coordinated civil society response to the crisis. This has given us an opportunity to be on the ground and gather information on some of the immediate human rights challenges that we need to respond to.

As part of a coordinated civil society response, we have managed to share some of the urgent legal and human rights challenges arising from the disaster with various government departments. However, at the present moment focus is mostly on providing relief to the survivors.

For some of the urgent human rights challenges we have identified, as an organisation we plan to send two officers to assist the people of Chimanimani. We are in the process of pulling together resources to enable us to be on the ground for longer and assist.

We are also appealing to this community to support us with technical and financial assistance to enable us to address some of the urgent legal and human rights challenges that our people are facing.

Many thanks for sharing the important resource from @ericaharper


Very sad, but i hope everything will be fine. Let us pray for God. Now strong initiatives are required to be taken for those remote areas that are affected

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