Corinna Schuler - Special to The Christian Science Monitor
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - Helicopters raced to save Mozambican villagers who were clinging to trees and rooftops yesterday, as floodwaters ravaged southern Africa for the third straight week.
"Our pilots have seen people sitting on rooftops as the waters were rising ... unable to reach them," says a shaken Maj. Louis Kirstein, one of many South African military officers involved in the rescue efforts.
A vicious cyclone and torrential rains have not only claimed some 350 lives in Southern Africa this month, but left nearly 1 million homeless. The putrid brown waters also washed away years of development work and prospects for an economic rebirth.
International donors are responding to pleas for help - Italy, Portugal, and the European Union were among the first - but much more will be needed if the region is to recover from the worst flooding in 50 years.
The United Nations has issued a world appeal for $13 million. But Mozambique alone says it requires in excess of $60 million to rebuild.
"These waters have wrought as much damage as a war," says Michiel Bester, economic analyst at Economatrix in Johannesburg. "So many important sectors of the economy in this region are being destroyed: agriculture, tourism, transport infrastructure, mines, telecommunications. It is simply devastating."
Flood waters have destroyed bridges, swept away concrete roads, drowned tens of thousands of cattle and transformed vast tracts of farmland into murky lakes in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Mozambique.
Zimbabwe, already reeling from a fuel crisis, can no longer receive needed loads of gas, and aid groups are struggling to deliver food to communities that are cut off by the rising waters.
Amid the heart-wrenching scenes of devastation, there were hopeful signs that the spirit of the people has survived the flooding.
Hundreds of Mozambican families have opened their homes to refugees. Youngsters jostled and laughed as they dragged sandbags to mend a highway. One teacher boarded a boat to visit his pupils at home after their school was washed away.
Two old ladies who took shelter in a feeble lean-to told journalists that they were happy to have survived together: "We just need a bit of salt and soap - and please send us seed and tools."
Aid workers agree that the hardest work will begin once the flood waters have receded, and the time comes to rebuild.
Thousands of children in Mozambique are facing malnutrition, according to the UN Children's Fund. Doctors are reporting a wave of illnesses, including malaria, brought on by the flood.
Right now, rescue missions are the top priority. South Africa's military continued efforts to save lives in Mozambique yesterday as the death toll mounted by the hour.
A flood wave roared down from the country's northern Limpopo River on Sunday, and, in a matter of hours, submerged the small town of Chokwe. Thousands were marooned.
South African pilots airlifted more than 1,000 people out of the town, but many were still trapped on rooftops when night fell. A television crew in a private helicopter filmed a man calling for help as waters gushed around him. The aircraft was full and unable to hover for a rescue. "We just had to fly away," one distraught reporter in Johannesburg recalled yesterday.
Malawi deployed two choppers yesterday to assist, while aid workers pleaded with the international community to send more choppers to the area. The World Food Program had just one aircraft ferrying in supplies to refugee camps.
The tragedy is that Mozambique entered the new century as an African success story of economic growth and self-reliance.
It was ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world after a 16-year civil war ended in 1992, but by last year, Mozambique had transformed itself into the world's fasting-growing economy. Road crews were constructing highways, foreign investors had opened new factories, and tourists flocked to white beaches.
"They were rebuilding their lives," says Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambique's independence leader and a beloved "mother" to the nation. "There was that sense of rebuilding our sense of self-esteem and dignity." Floods have "completely broken" the achievements in a few days.
She toured the rural area of Beira over the weekend to give what comfort she could. With help from Western donors, she says, the country can build itself up again. She urged developed countries to look beyond giving food relief to curbing disease and helping the country rebuild its infrastructure.
"Don't abandon us at the very time when we are most needy," she added.
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