MOZAMBIQUE: Flood lessons

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Steadily rising rivers mean the flooding in Mozambique is far from over, but the real challenge is convincing the defiant few to leave their possessions behind and head for higher ground, and keep those already rescued from returning before the water has subsided.

"The situation is still very bad and the Zambezi basin seems to be more flooded. Heavy rains have continued, also in neighbouring countries, [but] people keep going back - they don't realise the danger they are in," Luis Zaqueu, Communication Officer in the UN Resident Coordinator's Office in Mozambique, told IRIN.

According to Paulo Zucula, Director of Mozambique's disaster management agency (INGC), "Seventy percent of the people have been moved, but 30 percent are still missing, for two reasons: some are resisting to move - they want to stay; and a number of people have decided to move back to flooded areas."

The Zambezi, Africa's fourth largest river, rises in Zambia and flows along the borders of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to Mozambique, where it spills into the Indian Ocean.

Torrential rains along almost the whole 2,574km length of the river, particularly in southern Zambia, northern Zimbabwe, and central and northern Mozambique, have saturated the area. The Cahora Bassa Dam, built to generate electricity and regulate the flow of the river, is overflowing and Mozambique has had to keep releasing water to keep the dam wall safe, causing more flooding downstream.

The government estimates that up to 95,000 people have already been moved to resettlement areas, but over 200,000 people are still at risk. "There are a few hotspots now: in the district of Morrumbala [in the central province of Zambezia] people will need to be evacuated with in the next 24 hours," Zucula warned.

Patience wearing thin

"We have to be more forceful because people can be reluctant. They will look at the sky and see its not raining, or look at the river and see it is still far away, but we deal with other information like forecasts and weather reports so we know what is coming; then we need to force them out," Zucula said.

"We don't handcuff or jail anyone, but we do need to convince them to go. First we visit and warn people, and tell them that this is their last chance to leave. We also offer to take people's children and wives for them - we have to convince them that it's now or never."

The INGC has warned that it cannot continue rescue operations in the flood areas indefinitely and it will set a date, after which rescue efforts will stop.

Reluctance to leave and the desire to return arises from the evacuees' fear of losing what little livestock, crops and property they possess. Some 40 percent of Mozambique's population lives on less than one US dollar a day.

"They risk everything to save what they have," Zucula commented, adding that the government had started positioning uniformed police officers in flooded areas to send people back and to reassure those who were afraid their possessions would be looted.

A hard lesson, but being learnt

Catastrophic flooding left up to 800 dead in 2000 and killed dozens in 2007, so the Mozambican authorities have been strongly encouraging farmers to rebuild their houses on higher ground. "But people keep coming back to these areas because the riverbanks are the most fertile areas. The places they have been resettled to on higher ground are not as productive," Zaqueu said.

Chris McIvor, Programme Director of Save the Children UK in Mozambique, agreed: "No one likes being flooded out every second or third year. People have a good reason to be there - its economics: they get good produce there, so if you want people to move out of harm's way we need to provide an economic alternative that will allow them the same income."

Three issues were essential in getting people to stay in relocation areas, McIvor said: infrastructure - including education, health centres, water and sanitation; a means of making a living, and their willing consent.

Zaqueu said the government and the international community were "thinking about how to get people to settle on higher ground, away from risky areas."

McIvor noted that some communities had become dependent on aid and opted to stay in flood-prone areas because they knew that government aid agencies would come to their rescue if the rivers burst their banks, but asked, "What is the longer-term strategy?" This would need to be explored, and a long-term solution identified.

According to Zucula, while flooding this year was heavier than in 2000 and 2007, the impact had been far less severe, deaths had been limited and the response by the government and aid agencies had vastly improved.

"The last few years have seen more flooding and people have learned to respond. Secondly, the government of Mozambique has changed the way it deals with disaster: we are now much more proactive and don't just wait for disaster to happen; we have contingency plans and have better forecasts," he said.

"There is also more awareness globally for the need for disaster preparedness, which translates into more political will locally and more and better assistance from international organisations," Zucula pointed out.

"We try to help them build better homes, provide schools and public services. We estimate that only about 40 percent of those evacuated [during the 2000 and 2007 floods] actually went back," but "We can't force people not to go back. The Mozambican constitution prevents this."

Zaqueu said the immediate challenge was "first, to save lives, rescue people and provide the basic necessities," but warned that "It is cholera season now, and we need to work to prevent epidemics, to provide water, sanitation and latrines."

Source: IRIN