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UNICEF: Help needed to combat flood disaster in southern Africa

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UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy today said that the people of southern Africa were facing a "massive humanitarian disaster" unless the international community stepped up emergency relief for flood-ravaged Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Madagascar.
"If the governments of the world are going to help, the time is now -- not tomorrow or the next day," Ms. Bellamy declared. "The people of southern Africa are in desperate straits and cannot hang on much longer." She pointed out that thousands of people were still literally hanging on to treetops, rooftops, and bushy outcroppings as flood waters swirled around them. There has been a notable shortage of helicopters to carry out rescue and delivery operations in isolated areas, although additional machinery has been arriving in recent days.

"The people and governments in this flood-affected region are doing their utmost to survive and prevail, but they need our help," Ms. Bellamy added. "Rescuing the distressed, reaching out to the displaced, giving hope to the despondent are all within our power. It is our moral obligation."

Ms. Bellamy noted that two weeks have passed since she toured Mozambique and personally witnessed the devastation wrought by the region's worst flooding in more than 50 years. "It was terrible then," she said, "and circumstances since have steadily worsened. The international community must recognise that these floods have doubled or tripled in magnitude, and that far more people are at risk now than when this first began."

Ms. Bellamy was in Mozambique 17-20 February and toured flood-affected areas by helicopter and on foot. She noted that Mozambique is one of the world's poorest nations, with a GNP per capita of roughly $140 (1997 figure). Even before the present disaster Mozambique was ranked 10th in the world in under-5 mortality, and has a life expectancy at birth of only 44 years.

Throughout the region, it is estimated that 800,000 to 1 million people have lost their homes and are now in need of urgent humanitarian relief.

UNICEF, working with other members of the UN family as well as NGOs and national and provincial governments, has been working to provide emergency relief since the first days of February. The agency has delivered large quantities of medical supplies and oral rehydration sachets to Mozambique and Botswana, and is providing technical support for stabilising water supplies, providing for proper sanitation, and preparing for possible outbreaks of cholera, malaria and other diseases throughout the region.

In addition to addressing the immediate health threats posed by sanitation problems and contaminated water supplies, UNICEF is concerned about the impact of the floods on the schooling of children -- even in areas that have not been directly hit by flood waters. Throughout the region, school buildings are being used as makeshift shelter locations, disrupting education and extending the impact of the disaster to thousands of additional children and families.

A UN flash appeal to address these issues and others is seeking approximately US$14 million for Mozambique alone. Appeals for the other countries are being finalised pending ongoing assessment missions.

"When an earthquake hits, it grips our attention because it does its damage in a matter of minutes," Ms. Bellamy said. "This kind of disaster develops slowly, building over a period of weeks. That's why it's important that we keep our focus on this crisis, and treat it just as urgently as we would an earthquake."

See also the UNICEF emergency update on the southern Africa floods

Please email media@unicef.org with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/2000/14

For more information on UNICEF, visit its web site at http://www.unicef.org