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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Co-operation and Investment a Defence Against Floods

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Dec 4 2007 (IPS) - To prevent, monitor and manage floods in the Zambezi River Basin – and reduce the number of flood victims – regional governments and parties involved in the water sector urgently need to adopt a more proactive approach, experts said during the third Zambezi Basinwide Stakeholders Forum, held recently in Victoria Falls, northern Zimbabwe.

The Nov. 27-29 gathering took place under the auspices of the &#39Zambezi Action Plan Project 6, Phase 2&#39 (ZACPRO 6.2). This Southern African Development Community initiative focuses on improved management of the Zambezi River Basin&#39s resources, to bring about social and economic development in the area.

The basin – the fourth largest in Africa, measuring 1.3 million square kilometres – is home to over 40 million people, and is shared by Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"The frequency and magnitude of floods in the Zambezi Basin haven&#39t changed significantly," said Dominic Mazvimavi of the Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre at the University of Botswana.

"Scientific data confirms that there have not been significant changes in annual rainfall…The wettest period so far occurred in 1974/1975, during which the Zambezi reached its record water flow. In the years that followed, especially after 1978/1979, the river flows in the Zambezi have remained fairly constant."

Yet, the number of people affected by floods had increased over the years, he told IPS, with most of the victims poor and living in rural areas. "The population in the basin has grown extensively, and more and more people have moved towards river beds. The more people live in a specific area, the greater the flood damage."

Tabeth Chiuta, water programme co-ordinator of the World Conservation Union, noted that unsustainable land use – specifically the cultivation of wetlands – was also a cause of floods.

"Wetlands serve as a buffer against floods as they can store high amounts of water when, for instance, river levels rise," she said in an interview with IPS. "By doing so, wetlands reduce the velocity of water flows and protect communities from rising water levels."

All of these factors highlighted the need for better management of the basin and its water flows.

"We need to step away from blaming hydrological events such as floods on excess rainfall…Floods should be controlled at the source, before the damage is done. We cannot just treat the symptoms," explained Mazvimavi. "(The) time has come for an integrated and sustainable flood management system in which adequate data collection for rainfall, river flows (and) groundwater forms a crucial role."

This information needed to be shared among all countries in the Zambezi Basin. "We can&#39t work on a unilateral basis, as the Zambezi River is shared by eight different countries," Mazvimavi said.

"Unfortunately, many countries in the basin do not have access to crucial hydrological information, simply because they do not have the means to collect this data. In other cases, the information that is available is not communicated properly throughout the region and is not accessible to important stakeholders such as the communities."

Zab Phiri, project manager for ZACPRO 6.2, echoed the call for all countries that are part of the Zambezi Basin to be involved in flood management for the area, noting that communities and non-governmental groups also needed to participate.

"Co-operation is imperative to the future of the Zambezi River Basin. We need to move from unilateral action to co-ordination, collaboration and joint programming," he told IPS.

"We have come a long way already in that respect and the prospects look promising, but…there is also a lack of awareness, education and training capacities," Phiri added.

Noted Mazvimavi: "Awareness programmes for people living downstream and along rivers in the basin are crucial elements in flood management strategies. They need to know what the implications are of their actions and where they live, and what they can do when a flood strikes."

In addition to improving data collection, said Phiri, there was a need to attend to other matters, including inadequate legal and regulatory frameworks and poor infrastructure, to prevent and deal with floods.

However, progress was contingent on political will that translated into budgetary allocations, Mazvimavi observed. "If we want to make a difference, this is necessary. Unfortunately, the overall investment in the regional water sector is inadequate. This needs to change."

Ironically, emergency relief in the wake of floods – important though this was – could undermine political will, he noted. "Aid may…demotivate authorities from undertaking action to prevent floods and other water related calamities such as droughts."

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