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MOZAMBIQUE: Officials Master Floods – But Battle To Contain Diseases That Follow

Steven Lang

GRAHAMSTOWN, May 2 2008 (IPS) - More people have died of cholera following recent floods in Mozambique than the number of those who perished in the rising floodwaters. Most rivers in central and northern Mozambique burst their banks after heavy rains in December, January and February, and as a result of Cyclone Jokwe – which hit in early March.

Exact figures are not readily available, but it is believed that about dozen people lost their lives in the floods, while three were eaten by crocodiles that had escaped their usual habitats. However, the international relief organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF), says that at least 72 people have died of cholera and an equal number because of other waterborne diseases such as dysentery.

The numbers reveal that while Mozambican authorities have learned to mitigate the immediate consequences of massive floods, they are still struggling to cope with diseases that inevitably spread in the aftermath of such flooding.

Mozambique&#39s National Institute for Disaster Management (Instituto Nacional de Gestão de Calamidades, INGC) has described the recent downpours as the heaviest in living memory. Yet because the flooding followed similar patterns to the great floods of 2000 and 2007, authorities were able to extricate in good time almost all citizens living in areas at risk of being inundated.

More than 100,000 people were relocated, some of them forcibly, from the flood plains and transferred to resettlement camps at safe distances from rivers.

As soon as it appeared that the floodwaters were beginning to subside, Cyclone Jokwe hit the coastline near Nampula in the north, displacing thousands more people and causing 17 deaths.

Government would like to transform some of the resettlement areas into permanent villages in order to avoid the flood rescue operations, which take place on an almost annual basis. More than 20,000 houses were washed away over recent months.

Most villagers are not keen on permanent resettlement because it means that they would lose their normally fertile plots of land close to the river banks.

In order to overcome this reluctance, authorities launched a "food for reconstruction" programme that encourages the 30,000 people still living in the resettlement areas to lay water pipes, build houses, and construct the infrastructure that is necessary for maintaining basic levels of hygiene. In exchange for their labour, families are allocated enough food to sustain themselves.

The director general of the INGC, João Ribeiro, said in a radio interview that government had made a commitment to help the flood victims not only through setting up clinics and a proper sanitation system, but also with supplying cost effective building materials and assisting with construction methods.

While the Mozambican government has been able to attend to the basic requirements of the more than 21,000 families who were forced to leave their homes, a large number of Mozambicans living in the Zambezi Valley sought refuge in neighbouring Malawi where that country&#39s officials have been overseeing relief efforts.

Soon after the floods began to subside, several cases of cholera were reported in Mutarara District in the western part of Mozambique, bordering on Malawi.

Cholera is an infection of the intestines caused by contaminated water. It causes chronic diarrhoea and vomiting, leading to severe dehydration and frequently death.

The authorities were aware that cholera was likely to follow the floods, but they were not able to prevent the disease from spreading. Mozambique is still a very poor country, and does not have the means to provide adequate sanitation infrastructure throughout the country.

MSF&#39s Richard N’kurunziza said that resettlement camps without proper toilet facilities or potable water were particularly vulnerable to cholera. He described the hygiene conditions in these camps as inadequate, noting that lack of proper facilities over just a few days was enough to allow the disease to spread.

Within days of announcing the first cases, the Mozambican health ministry issued a statement saying that cholera had been diagnosed in nine of the country&#39s 11 provinces. The situation became serious so quickly that resources were even diverted away from feeding schemes in certain areas so that officials could work towards providing proper sanitation, INGC Director Paulo Zucula noting that lack of hygiene provided a more immediate threat than hunger.

Nevertheless, lack of food in Mozambique was exacerbated by the floods which, according to the INGC, destroyed more than 117,000 hectares of crops.

Local shortages coupled with rising food prices on international markets have left thousands of Mozambicans unable to provide sufficiently for themselves and their families. The crisis has already sparked food riots in several cities, during which at least six people died.

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