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After the floods
Rebuiding Mozambique
by Jessica Barry

Eight years after ending a vicious civil war, Mozambique was an African success story. But torrential rains and a powerful cyclone in February wiped out much of the progress made, forcing millions of people to rebuild their lives for a second time.

"The water came during the night. We woke up to find our possessions floating around us," recounted a family from Chokwe, in the Gaza province, where flood waters from the Limpopo River reached head height. They were one of the thousands of families in the Sofala, Gaza and Inhambane provinces of Mozambique, who lost everything following the torrential rains and cyclone in February. The floods swept away homes, schools, crops and clinics. Nearly 27 per cent of the country's population - or 4.5 million people - were affected, according to the government's disaster assessment. Approximately 540,000 people were displaced with 800,000 still in need of assistance in early May.

As the water rose, it swept away minefield markers and unearthed landmines planted during Mozambique's 16-year-long civil war. Years of effort to protect rural communities from these insidious killers were literally washed away, adding to the horror, and creating a new hazard for the future.

The Mozambican government declared a national disaster in early February and began a rescue operation in the flood-affected areas of Maputo province. The National Institute for Disaster Management (INGC) coordinated the relief effort with the Mozambique Red Cross Society (MRCS) acting as its advisor.

Hundreds of Red Cross volunteers went to the stricken areas to help rescue stranded people, run public health education campaigns, provide first aid and distribute relief supplies and chlorine for purifying water. "The volunteers here are truly fantastic. There is absolutely nothing these people cannot do. You talk about the power of humanity, this is it right here," exclaimed Don Atkinson, an Australian Red Cross water and sanitation delegate.

Help from all corners 

The MRCS launched a solidarity campaign that drew a remarkable response from local people. By 5 March, it had received USD 300,000.

Pupils at the Força do Povo school in Hulene on the outskirts of Maputo offered clothes and food to over 240 displaced families sheltering in their playground.

"We thought they would only be here for a few days but they have stayed for weeks," said one teacher. "So the children decided to help them by donating whatever they could, even though they themselves have very little."

At the beginning of March, following an appeal for international help from President Joaquim Chissano and dramatic TV pictures of exhausted South African helicopter crews plucking people out of trees, governments and donors started to react. When it finally did get under way, the international aid operation was chaotic. Poor coordination, lack of warehouse space, washed-out roads and broken bridges made getting help to the displaced a logistical nightmare.

"It was like a circus during the first weekend when the helicopters and planes began arriving," commented a senior aid worker with several years' experience in Mozambique. Other aid workers echoed her words. "I was stunned by the lack of coordination," remarked a USAID disaster specialist.

For its part, the Federation sent a task force to Maputo to support the MRCS with coordination, logistics, transport, relief and telecommunications. Very quickly over 20 National Societies joined in the relief operation with their own delegates and supplies.

With so many NGOs, military search-and-rescue teams and aid workers on the ground, confusion and duplication of activities were almost inevitable. Both the government and the MRCS felt that the situation was getting out of hand, and that they were being bypassed.

The INGC slowly managed to regain control. It reinforced its coordinating role, organized daily briefings for the press and aid agency representatives, and set up a system of accreditation for the NGOs.

Out on the streets 

Twelve-year-old Davide and his friend Casimo are former street children living in the Centro de Boa Esperança, the Good Hope Centre, run by the Mozambique Red Cross on the outskirts of Maputo. They are among 150 boys and girls currently being cared for at the centre by five Red Cross social workers.

The children can stay there indefinitely, but efforts are made to reunite those who still have parents. If this is not possible, a substitute family may be found. For many of the children, however, the Good Hope Centre is their only home.

The youngsters, some of whom are as young as seven, attend school, and also receive a vocational training. The boys are taught carpentry and handicrafts. The girls learn to sew.

"We may see more children coming here in the future," says Jeremais Samuel, in charge of vocational training. "There have been so many youngsters made homeless by the floods. Many of them will end up on the streets unless we find them first," he adds.

Limits of preparedness 

Ironically, the Mozambique government had drawn up a national disaster preparedness contingency plan in November 1999. The Contingency Plan for the Season of Rains and Cyclones 1999-2000 was the result of a year's research into ways of preparing the country for catastrophes. In October, the government held a two-week emergency response simulation exercise on the beaches of Maputo, which brought together local authorities and villagers from high-risk regions. The MRCS played a leading role.

The exercise was monitored by the World Food Programme, which found it had helped communities in disaster-prone provinces to become more aware of the need to identify safe areas before the onset of a crisis.

However, translating theory into practice when the moment came was more difficult. Many families were initially reluctant to abandon their homes and possessions for fear of looters. It was only when their lives were at risk from the rising waters that they agreed to leave.

Going home 

"The Red Cross is in here to assist the people from Mozambique to go back to their homes and to give them the support they need," explains Don Atkinson. The Federation, with the Mozambique Red Cross, is in the process of developing a comprehensive reconstruction programme in the flood-devasted provinces. It will be located in 15 districts where the National Society wants to strengthen its presence. Initially, it will provide assistance to health posts, using Red Cross activists as outreach workers. This will be followed with help for the rehabilitation of damaged houses, latrine construction, and the provision of seeds and tools to farmers. Disaster preparedness will be an integral part of the plan, and will involve identifying key locations where communities can gather when danger threatens, and where emergency reserves and shelter materials can be stocked. Above all, it will focus on strenghtening the capacities of local Red Cross branches and on supporting people's own efforts to rebuild their lives.

Ignoring government warnings not to return home too soon, thousands of people started to go back as soon as the flood waters began to recede in mid-March. With dignity and determination, families in Chokwe waded along streets knee-deep in mud and set about cleaning up their homes. Women dragged sodden furniture out into the sunlight, and hung their children's clothes over bushes to dry. Farmers, lucky enough to have hillside allotments that had escaped the worst of the flooding, gathered tomatoes, potatoes and green vegetables to sell in a small, open air-market.

Mozambique is showing the same indomitable spirit that turned this former Portuguese colony from one of the poorest countries in Africa into an African success story within eight years of ending a bitter civil war. Some of her foreign debt repayments have been written off or suspended, the country's infrastructure is being re-built, and her people are being assisted until they can fend for themselves.

Jessica Barry 
Jessica Barry is a press officer in the Federation's media service.

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