JOHANNESBURG, 6 January 2012 (IRIN) - Several thousand Angolan returnees from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are stranded by floods in northeastern Angola. They are among the first casualties of what promises to be a very wet rainy season in parts of southern Africa.
"At least 50,000 people - 24,000 of them returnees - in 10 villages in Uige Province [northeastern Angola near border with DRC] have been affected by the flooding, rains and hailstorms in the past four months," said Antonio Maiandi, head of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Angola, which has been trying to help those affected. The rainy season here tends to be longer than elsewhere in Angola.
"It is still pouring hard. At least 1,142 houses have been destroyed by the rains. Each family with shelter is now hosting other families," said Maiandi, adding that the returnees, who had sought refuge from the civil war in Angola which ended in 2002, were putting enormous pressure on locals, and organizations such as his.
"The local population who are mostly farmers have been severely affected. Their cassava [staple food in Angola] and groundnut crops have been destroyed, so there is not enough food to go round."
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) restarted formal repatriation of Angolans in November 2011 after logistical and other problems forced the process to stop in 2007. DRC is home to some 80,000 Angolans refugees, according to UNHCR.
The new return initiative comes after a UNHCR survey in 2010 found that 43,000 wanted to return home, and following a tripartite agreement between Angola, DRC and UNHCR (signed in June 2011), around 20,000 people signed up for help to return. The agreement came about after years of tense relations between the two countries: Angolan and Congolese nationals have been expelled from the two countries regularly. [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportId=93004 ] [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportId=90906 ]
"The local population is extremely poor and unable to support the returnees," and "people are still coming in every day," said Maiandi.
UNHCR in Angola told IRIN they took a break in December 2011 and would resume formal repatriation on 17 January, but did not have an update on the number of people who had already arrived.
According to aid workers, increasing instability in the DRC following the recent disputed elections could be prompting more people to leave.
Maiandi said the returnees had not received adequate support from the authorities and church organizations had limited resources.
Meteorologists for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have predicted normal to above normal rains for most of the region from January to March 2012 largely because of the continuing effects of the 2011 La Niña event. [ http://irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=91746 ] Thousands of people in the region were displaced and scores killed in early 2011 as a result of heavy rains and flooding associated with La Niña.
As the rainy season begins here, aid workers and disaster prevention teams are closely monitoring water levels in the all-important Zambezi river, the continent's fourth largest.
The authorities have issued a flood alert after being forced to release water from the swollen Kariba Dam on the Zambezi earlier than usual in the rainy season.
The Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) which usually opens the spillway gates of Lake Kariba in the last two weeks of January was forced to open one of the gates on 3 January. It has advised people living downstream to evacuate their homes.
Zambia is in for a mixed season. Dominicano Mulenga, national coordinator of Zambia's Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit, said a plan had been drawn up to help 368,953 people likely to be affected by rain and dry spells. While northwestern and western parts of the country had seen heavy rain, southern, eastern and parts of central Zambia were likely to receive little or no rain, he said.
The water level in the Zambezi was higher than at the same time in 2011, he added. "We have had three seasons of heavy rainfall and the ground is saturated with water, making it more prone to flooding."
Namibians, currently experiencing a heat wave, are eager for rain, said Guido van Langehove, chief of the Namibia Hydrological Services. Southern African Development Community (SADC) meteorologists have forecast normal to above normal rains for Namibia over the next three months. "It was the same forecast last year and we recorded three times the normal rain," van Langehove pointed out.
The Caprivi Region, Namibia's poorest area, is prone to annual flooding.
Japhet Itenge, director of Disaster Risk Management in the Office of the Prime Minister, said they were prepositioning essential commodities and relief tools as part of their contingency plans.
Lesotho has not received adequate rainfall in the past few months, a spokesman for the country's meteorological services told IRIN. "SADC has forecast heavy rains for Lesotho in the coming weeks. We are worried it can cause early frost and destroy crops that have already been planted," he said.
Lesotho and Namibia have food insecurity levels greater than their five-year averages due to the severe flooding experienced during the last growing season, according to FEWSNET.
The Mozambican authorities have begun to release water from the Cahora Bassa Dam on the Zambezi. People living mainly along the lower Zambezi basin and in Buzi, Save, and Pungue basins, including Beira city, are on alert.
Sofala Province in central Mozambique is currently distributing items such as bicycles, stretchers, masks, gloves, megaphones and boats, according to the Mozambique Red Cross; and members of seven local disaster risk management committees established in Beira City are cleaning the drainage system.
The National Institute of Disaster Management (INGC) is monitoring the rivers Montepuez, Licungo, Mutamba, Pungué, Buzi, Save, and Maputo, said FEWSNET. In the Zambezi and Limpopo river basins, FEWSNET warned of a near-average-to-high probability of flooding.
João Bobotela, CARE's emergency response coordinator in Mozambique, said INGC and local authorities had been running flood simulation exercises since November 2011 to prepare communities for sudden evacuations.
Arid Botswana has not received good rains in the past few months. "We are expecting average rains which might help crops," said a spokesman for the Botswana Meteorological Services.
More rains have been forecast for southern Malawi, where land adjacent to the River Shire, one of the most food-insecure parts of the country, is prone to flooding. Parts of the region, which has seen an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and a hike in food prices, are in crisis mode, warned FEWSNET.
Much-needed rain has fallen in South Africa's major maize-producing northern Free State area in the past few weeks. The government and USAID's Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) say the country has adequate supplies, but global maize stocks are low, putting considerable upward price pressure on South African white maize.