MOZAMBIQUE: The fertile but dangerous floodplains

Monday, March 10, 2008

Water levels in Mozambique, the country hardest hit by Southern Africa's unusually early and heavy seasonal rains, are receding, but with thousands of people still displaced by flooding and living in camps yet again, there will be no rest for relief agencies any time soon.

"Water levels are certainly going down; for the moment things look good, but the rainy season can continue through March," Peter Keller-Transburg, Public Information and Reports Officer of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Mozambique, told IRIN. Rainfall has eased across the region and almost all the rivers in Mozambique are now below the alert level.

The Cahora Bassa Dam, in the northwestern province of Tete, built to generate electricity and regulate the flow of the Zambezi River, "has decreased its discharge rates from 1,850 to 1,700 cubic meters per second, due to decreased rainfall in Mozambique and in neighbouring countries," said the latest situation report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The Zambezi, Africa's fourth largest river, rises in Zambia and flows along the borders of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, crossing Mozambique before spilling into the Indian Ocean.

Keeping out of harm's way

Over 100,000 people, displaced by flooding in the Zambezi River Valley, are still in resettlement centres in Mozambique's central provinces of Tete, Sofala and Zambezia.

The idea is that they should rebuild their lives there. Since the rivers started rising in early January, the main challenge facing authorities and relief agencies has been convincing people in the fertile flood plains to leave their possessions behind, head for higher ground and stay put.

With catastrophic flooding occurring more frequently - up to 800 were left dead in 2000, and dozens were killed in 2007 - the Mozambican authorities have been strongly encouraging farmers to rebuild their houses on higher ground: Almost all the resettlement centres will be become more permanent settlements, "with all the necessary social structures like schools and hospitals", Transburg said.

He warned that when the waters receded people would have to be given more than social amenities, because economic prospects and a chance at making a living would be key to successful relocation.

However, the resettled people are facing more immediate problems, including outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases. According to OCHA, "as of 26 February, cholera has affected 1,539 persons and resulted in 14 fatalities," in the flood-affected provinces of Tete and Sofala. "Cholera centres have been set up; eight out of eleven provinces have reported cholera."

Could have been worse

Despite the almost overwhelming difficulties, most observers agree that lessons have been learnt. Contingency planning by nine countries in the southern Africa region in 2007 meant they were much better prepared for the flooding in early 2008. There has also been far greater cooperation between governments in managing water levels in the river system, and local authorities have proved effective in their responses.

A Consolidated Appeals Process to raise US$89 million from the international community for the existing needs of 450,000 people and to improve preparedness measures was launched in February to assist Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. OCHA said so far just over $15 million had been given or pledged.

Meanwhile, cyclone Ivan, which brought destruction and flooding to Madagascar, was still lingering in the Mozambique Channel, according to Mozambique's National Directorate for Water. The storm posed no immediate threat to Mozambique, but the authorities would remain vigilant on the off-chance that it might pick up strength.

Source: IRIN