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Impressions from flood-affected Mozambique

Remko Berkhout, Concern's Country Director in Mozambique, reports from the flood-affected areas in central Mozambique, giving impressions from the search and rescue missions that Concern have been participating in since early January.

“We’re not going and that’s the end of it!” says Carlos leaning back against a coconut palm, staring stubbornly past us into the bush. There are pots boiling on a stove. Three children are playing around, chasing a chicken. We have come here to warn him, again, that he has to leave.

Everybody here knows that big floods occur every five or six years. There have been floods in 1978, 1984, 1990, 1996, 2000. There were also floods last year, so to the people living here it would seem unlikely that the water levels would rise any higher. However, with current water levels already higher than last year and the rainy season only beginning, Mozambique could be on the way to its worst floods in history.

The wild Zambezi River behind Carlos’ house has just passed the 2007 flood levels, with hourly updates indicating that levels could rise even more. The soil around the house is slowly becoming saturated. Dry soil has a pinkish colour in this area, but has already turned dark-red, with the next stage, brown mud. After that, the water will cover the land. The maize plot behind the house has already flooded. 

The water has been rising steadily for weeks now, sneaking up on the communities gradually, but surely. Moving between houses people have to wade to chest deep water, but many are in denial about the risks they are facing.

Rural paradise

The committee members continue their fruitless attempts to convince Carlos to go. Having worked in the poorest areas of Mozambique, it’s easy to see where the resistance is coming from. The Zambezi River banks are a rural paradise with coconuts, mangos and bananas in abundance, while the river is full of nutritious fish. Maize seems to sprout up spontaneously everywhere. A family like Carlos’ would have rice fields around the lakes, grow tomatoes in the humid lowlands, while using the higher ground for maize and livestock. Why would Carlos give that all up for an existence in a tightly packed resettlement camp?

Attempts to evacuate

The government has started to evacuate people from this island, which is likely to be captured by the river within the next few days. These efforts have had little effect; the only option remaining to prevent loss of life is compulsory evacuation. For weeks, people have been advised to go to the other side of the river, where the resettlement centres from last year’s floods are still functioning. As the crow flies, it’s less than a kilometre to the opposite riverbank, but it’s like going to another country. Here is Zambezia province, Schwabo culture. The other side is Sena land, where they speak a different language, with different cultural beliefs.

Well organised response

Government officials of the Disaster Management Institute are working with community members, the police and the armed forces to evacuate the people at risk. Having dealt with numerous emergencies and frequent evacuation exercises during the civil war, these people have more experience in dealing with disasters than the entire international aid community.
As the military has now become involved in the evacuation efforts, aid agencies have to take a step back. This means more time and resources free to focus on the camps. In the days to come, the four camps in Chinde district are expectated to become inhabited by between 10,000 and 15,000 people. Concern’s partners from German Agro Action will take care of camp management, food aid and agricultural support and Concern will support education and protection of the most vulnerable.

Concern’s team

Concern will be procuring household and shelter kits, composed of items such as plastic sheeting, buckets, cooking utensils, water purifier and mosquito nets for families in the camps. Kits for students and teachers will be distributed to enable the school year to start on time.

Concern’s coordinator from Zambezia, Anibal Machava, set up a temporary base in Caia, to lead emergency operations from here, giving immediate access to the latest information. Concern’s programme manager, Jaime Chitalango is bringing a team of five of our best facilitators to Chinde, seven hours down the river from Caia. This team will help set up the schools, identify and support the most vulnerable refugees, such as the elderly and chronically ill.

The cycle of flooding has obviously been disrupted, leading us to believe that this response is about much more than just relief and recovery. The people living in the Zambezi valley will be forced to make difficult choices to adjust their livelihood patterns and Concern are going to be with them to help wherever possible.