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WATER-ZAMBIA: Worries Ahead of Flood Season

Lloyd Himaambo

SHANGOMBO DISTRICT, Zambia, Nov 14 2009 (IPS) - 
The Zambezi is home to the fishing community on Mbeta Island. But after the river rose and swallowed their homes last year, they have learned to fear it as well.

Zambia was hit hard by floods at the start of 2009; officials and communities alike are apprehensive as the rains begin again in November. Credit:  Nebert Mulenga/IRIN

Zambia was hit hard by floods at the start of 2009; officials and communities alike are apprehensive as the rains begin again in November. Credit: Nebert Mulenga/IRIN

Mulemwa Kalaluka is a renowned fisherman on the island. He says he prefers catching fish the traditional way, using a spear and fish trap as he expertly navigates the river in his fishing boat. He is happy and says this season the fish is plentiful as he has managed to catch enough to feed his family and sell some to fish mongers from bigger towns.

Mbeta is mainly a fishing community, but residents do a little farming as well, especially during periods when high water levels or when there is a government closure of fishing to allow fish to breed.

The 2008 floods – which entirely submerged this large island, forcing people to flee – are still fresh in the minds of people as the rainy season begins again.

“Those were particularly hard times,” says Kalaluka when asked what he remembers about the 2008/2009 floods, the worst since 1958 according to locals.

“At first we ignored the announcement by local leaders that we have to move. We thought this is normal rain and will pass like it does every year,” he says.

Kalaluka explains that by the time they realised that something unusual was happening, it was too late to prepare. Hundreds of people had been sheltering at Mbeta basic school, but after two days the school itself was flooding.

People were evacuated from the island in fishing boats and on rafts as the water rose seemingly by the second. In the rush, livestock was lost and very little of the maize, rice and other staples villagers had stored was saved.

The whole district of Shangombo, where Mbeta Island is found, was heavily flooded and completely cut off from the rest of the country as bridges were washed away. Residents were evacuated to higher lands such as former refugee camp at Namgweshi.

But the relief measures were temporary, lasting only for about a month.

The communities have returned to their old homes, but the prospects of the situation repeating itself are very high.

Mubika Mubika is the Member of Parliament (MP) for the area. Asked what measures have been put in place to make sure that communities are not negatively affected should there be flooding again this year, Mubika responded by explaining that there is a great likelihood that there will be floods again this season.

“Only God knows what will happen,” responds Mubika when pressed further on what will befall these communities if the river rises to the same levels as next year.

Mubika, who is also an under minister in the national government, claims there is a resettlement scheme for those who are willing to relocate permanently.

But most people interviewed in the district said they have heard nothing about the scheme beyond the pronouncements of politicians during election times.

Misheck Kabayo is the District Administrator for Shangombo. He insists that no affected person has returned to flood-prone areas. According to him, all the people who were affected have been integrated into existing villages in the upper lands. He says the people who have returned to dangerous areas are there just for the fishing, but will return to higher ground.

Kabayo however agrees that the idea of resettlement has not yet taken off.

“We have identified land where those who are willing can move and we hope that very soon we will start giving out plots of land to such people,” he says.

His version is at odds with the realities in the district. “We have no choice but to come back here” says Mbeta island farmer Mundia Kabutu almost angrily. “What do you expect us to do? Even if we wanted to shift, where shall we go?” he says.

Kabutu says that the type of help they receive is transient and cannot sustain people to start a new life in a different environment.

”Which government are you referring to?” he asks.”They can’t even construct a proper road to connect this place to the rest of the country and you expect them to build us new homes?”

“When the water comes again,”says 61-year old Sibeso Nasilele, “we shall move to that place (higher land) but we shall come back to continue life here as we know it.”

Nasilele said that she does not envisage starting a new life away from Mbeta at her age. She said that maybe younger people would be more willing to go and start life afresh.

“I was born here and will die here, since my life is already in the afternoon,” she says.

And this year’s rains begin to fall.

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