After the floods
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
"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
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.
"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 is a press officer in the Federation's media service.
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