Massive flooding returns, but Mozambique prevents disaster

Paulo Zucula listens intently to the aid workers' firsthand reports: Whole villages submerged. Hungry families. An estimated 70,000 now homeless. The nightly updates list the mounting challenges as Mozambique experiences the worst flooding since 2000 and 2001.

Yet, Mr. Zucula, the head of Mozambique's National Disaster Management Institute, exudes calm, even satisfaction. Unlike six years ago, when the flooding killed some 700 people, the government says that fewer than 10 people have died so far.

This time, the Mozambican government moved early and deliberately to avert a massive humanitarian crisis. Months ago, it began preparing to evacuate villages, moved food supplies into the area, and had set up early warning systems throughout the flood-prone Zambezi River basin.

"If you're looking for a success story of an African government that's trying to make things better for its people, this is a very good example of that." says Mike Huggins, spokesman for the UN's World Food Program (WFP) in southern Africa. "Their response [to flooding this time] is massively better. The government is doing a lot this year to try to mitigate the impact – they've evacuated everyone from the really critical areas, they've made sure that the UN and the aid organizations are all working together to bring a coordinated response."

The emergency is being handled at the highest levels of the government. Zucula is working closely with Prime Minister Luisa Diogo and is coordinating the various international aid organizations that have come to central Mozambique.

The country is twice the size of California on the southeast coast of Africa. Foreign aid still makes up about 14 percent of Mozambique's GDP, according to USAID, and the country is still recovering from a brutal, 17-year civil war that ended in 1992. While critics point to government corruption and high poverty rates, the US State Department and other organizations praise Mozambique for its democratic government and consistent economic growth.

The government's performance during this year's floods shows another aspect of the country's development, say UN representatives and aid workers: its ability to manage its affairs – and crises – itself.

"The government has demonstrated quite good leadership so far," says Jean-Luc Tonglet, humanitarian officer with the UN's southern Africa Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "There has been quite significant development within the government to improve disaster management as a whole."

This set up – aid organizations reporting to the Mozambican disaster agency, the disaster management system, even the air-conditioned room in Caia that has become flood response headquarters – is new.

Over the past year, the Mozambican government has revamped its disaster-management agency, making it prevention-focused rather than response-oriented. Floods, droughts, and cyclones are going to happen in this country, the government realized, so the best approach is to minimize their impact.

"In real terms, floods are good. Cyclones are good," Zucula says. "They play a good role ecologically. What makes them disasters are vulnerable people."

The disaster agency opened regional branches to monitor and prepare for natural hazards. The office in Caia monitors weather forecasts, upstream dam capacity, and rainfall in neighboring countries that will flow down the Zambezi.

As early as October, the Mozambican government predicted flooding. It set up an early-warning system and moved equipment such as boats and communications gear into the region. It worked with the WFP to move food into the area. Earlier this month, when reports of more rain and diminishing dam capacity confirmed their fears, Zucula's team started evacuating low-lying villages.

Although Zucula consults with representatives from the UN agencies and the aid groups that come to Caia, he is the one who decides upon the daily rescue or aid operations.

One recent day, for instance, he decides that the WFP must fly food to a village called Matilde, a community of several thousand people that has been turned into an island by the rising Zambezi. There are reports that people there – cut off from supply trucks and markets – have been without food for three days.

Within hours, WFP workers load up the agency's Mi-8 helicopter with two tons of cornmeal, cooking oil, and lentils. They fly 40 minutes along the Zambezi, its silver-brown waters snaking through villages and fields, and land on a soccer field surrounded by coconut palms.

While few people have died in these floods, the damage to fields is extensive. The WFP estimates that the flood destroyed 100,000 acres of farmland. The agency has passed out 300 tons of food to some 30,000 people.

"We have been very hungry," says Zeca Martins, a village elder in Matilde, as younger men from the community help WFP workers unload heavy bags of corn meal. "The machambas," – rural Mozambicans' small fields – "are all finished."

Back at his headquarters in Caia, Zucula continues evaluating reports from different aid groups. At this point, he says, the emergency rescue operations are finished. Floodwaters are receding, and the government has reduced the discharge from the Cahora Bassa Dam upstream. Now, his attention is shifting to the displaced people.

Not far from Caia, more than 4,000 people from the low-lying Gangala community are building small bamboo and grass huts on a higher-elevation swath of land. There is one water spigot and no latrines.

These villagers have been here before. They moved to this area during the 2001 floods. But they returned to their land near the river after the crisis, saying it was more fertile. "It is not easy to get new land," explains Pedro Jose, who fled here with his wife and three children.

"We should have had tents laid out, water in place, latrines – a full tent village," Zucula says. "But that takes money. So we do things in sequence ... No. 1: save lives, rescue people. Now we are shifting to the accommodation centers. This is what we need to do – it is an organized, targeted response."

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