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CLIMATE-MOZAMBIQUE: Once Again Flooding Brings Risk of Disease

Steven Lang

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 28 2008 (IPS) - Once again Mozambicans are assessing the damage left in the wake of devastating rains and burst river banks along the floodplains of the Zambezi, Búzi, Púnguè and Save Rivers. Nobody is sure how many people have perished in the most recent floods, but the final death toll could be well over one hundred.

As of Sunday, approximately 20,136 households – 94,770 people – had moved to resettlement centres as a result of the 2008 floods, according to the Emergency Operations Centre of Mozambique’s National Institute for Disaster Management (INGC). Between Dec. 27 and Jan. 23 a total of 11,761 people who were stranded in flood affected areas had been rescued in operations carried out by the National Civil Protection Unit.

Rain is still falling in the catchment area of some rivers in the central and southern parts of the country, but river levels have more or less stabilised for the moment. Rescue operations are still in progress but the number of people being transferred to resettlement camps is gradually tapering off.

Between 2000 and 2001 massive flooding forced more than 250,000 people to flee from their homes. Then in the early months of 2007, the waters came rushing down again. While Mozambicans were still recovering from the floods of 2007, the latest weather system brought billions of cubic metres of water surging though the valleys again.

Meteorologists agree that this has happened many times in the past and will probably happen again. But, if such floods are reasonably predictable, why are the local population and government unable to manage the situation so as to minimise the suffering of the people and to reduce damage to their meagre possessions? Why do they find it so difficult to cope with a phenomenon that is more or less inevitable?

The construction of the Cahora Bassa dam from 1969 to 1974 was meant to provide electricity to the Southern African electric grid, but it was also designed to regulate the flow of the Zambezi River and in so doing, protect the people who inhabit the flood plains from perennial droughts and floods.

Electric supply to the grid is still not reliable and the current flooding in central and southern Mozambique would suggest that Cahora Bassa is not doing a great job of regulating the water flow. Engineers were forced to release vast amounts of water from the dam to have capacity for the massive inflow.

Weather patterns in Southern Africa have been particularly harsh on Mozambique over the past year. At the beginning of 2007, cyclone Favio dumped enormous amounts of rain on the country. Favio destroyed crops and left thousands of people homeless.

Aid agencies had to bring in large amounts of food to feed almost 500,000 people who had lost all their crops

Through most of the year, even as parts of the country were recovering from too much water, other regions were parched by relentless drought. The World Food Program (WFP) had to feed victims of flooding and of drought in the same country at the same time.

Much of the current flooding in the Zambezi floodplain is a direct result of unusually heavy rains high up in the catchment area, which drains extensive areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

One of the reasons for the high mortality rate in Mozambique is that many people ignore flood warnings and refuse to leave their homes. People were reluctant to leave their homes for fear of losing crops and livestock. They felt there was a real possibility of facing starvation once the floodwaters receded.

As the gravity of the current crisis became apparent, the government took a decision to be more persuasive about evacuating people from low-lying areas.

Casimiro Abreu of INGC explained, “We are going to be more vigorous, even using military forces if necessary, in evacuating people who stubbornly insist on staying in high risk areas.”

However, after facing criticism for its sometimes heavy-handed efforts to resettle people from high-risk areas, the government changed its strategy, offering “food for work” incentives to coax people into safer areas.

There have been some positive results using this strategy, but many villagers still choose to invoke their constitutional right to live wherever they please. Under such circumstances, the INGC will now only be obliged to warn each individual about the dangers of living in a particular area, and to alert citizens about adverse weather conditions.

Authorities are not yet certain how many people have drowned in the recent floods, but due to lessons learnt from previous floods, the death toll is expected to be lower than it was in the floods of 2000 and 2001.

At least three people have fallen victim to crocodiles that have found their range extended by the floodwaters.

Officials are now concerned about health risks normally associated with the critical, post-flood period when breeding conditions are ideal for mosquitoes and the incidence of malaria increases.

Cholera also becomes a very serious health risk as dead livestock and untreated sewage pollute drinking water. Bruno Lab, a spokesperson for Doctors without Borders said that, “There is a high risk of diarrhoea and a cholera epidemic associated with the high number of people in one place. Without rapid action on the sanitation front, the risk will increase.”

“There is not enough access to potable water, and it is a difficult situation when a health clinic suddenly has to attend to nine thousand people. The situation could get worse,” Lab added.

During the next seven days, moderate to heavy rains are predicted in the northern and central regions of the country. As a result, water levels of the Zambezi, Pungue and Búzi Rivers are expected to rise.

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