Survivors of Cyclone Idai in southern Africa are facing a water, sanitation and hygiene ticking bomb, a top relief officer has warned, amid fears of the death toll increasing after floodwaters recede. Over 400 people are died during the cyclone in Mozambique, with a further 300 fatalities in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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In Geneva, Secretary General, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Elhadj As Sy, said an estimated 300 sqkm of land was destroyed or submerged when floodwaters and over 150 kmph winds swept Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe from March 14 night. In partnership with the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and other UN agencies, IFRC is working with the authorities to provide assistance.

Describing his visit to Mozambique last Friday, As Sy said many homes were totally submerged. “We flew over many - what used to be - forests but you could not even see the trees. Trees as high as 10 metres were all under water, he said. Needs are huge for all those affected by the disaster and made worse by the widespread poverty and lack of development in the affected countries, As Sy said.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable and suffering from multiple deprivations, he said, after his visit to Beira, the port city where Idai made landfall. Jumping up in your eyes, these kinds of disasters do affect disproportionately, women and children, the relief official said. The worst is the children crying and looking for their parents, either because they’re just in a different shelter, hopefully, or unfortunately, they may have died, he said.

He said an initial IFRC appeal for around USD 10 million was tripled after we realized very, very quickly that this is not going to be anywhere near the scale and magnitude to make any difference.

Lauding the courage and professionalism of countless boat-owners who rescued thousands of people from flooded areas, the IFRC top official expressed concern over the lack of adequate shelter and basic services for survivors in Beira, Mozambique’s second-largest city, which was hit twice by the cyclone.

They are not good, to be very honest, he said, noting the conditions survivors’ faced in the city. Some of them are even horrendous, he said, adding that he had gone to a school where 3,000 were crammed into 15 classrooms. As Sy said the school itself is half-flooded and there are only six toilets for all those people.”So it’s not an exaggeration when I say that we are really sitting here on a water, sanitation and hygiene ticking bomb, he said.

Amid concerns over the death toll likely to rise as the floodwaters recede, the IFRC official said everything possible is being done to get help to where it was needed most. We are making an extra effort to go to those that are hardest to reach and those that are most vulnerable, he said.

And those of course, will include the elderly, female-headed households, the children, the disabled. These are often times, the ones that are left behind, As Sy said.

Underlining the importance of ensuring that protection of victims is as important as providing food and safe water and sanitation facilities, he said sexual exploitation was common in such situations, although he had not received any reports of abuse.

These are “very, very, very vulnerable people: very vulnerable children, very vulnerable young girls and women , he said. If we do not do something, then we should not then be surprised and then feel sorry afterwards that something happened, the top IFRC official said.