Dispatch from Mozambique: the first two weeks of flood relief activities

News and Press Release
Originally published
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been running cholera prevention and other health care programs in Mozambique since 1989. When severe flooding began to sweep the country in early February 2000, Doctors Without Borders teams working in the affected regions immediately switched their activities to emergency flood relief. Now over 40 international volunteers and 100 national staff members are providing health care, food, drinking water, shelter, and latrines to thousands left homeless by the worst flooding to hit Mozambique in over 30 years.
In this report from Mozambique, Doctors Without Borders Head of Mission Gorik Ooms describes the first two weeks of relief activities.

"Doctors Without Borders was in the flood areas by February 5, when the first floods were just developing.

"There were heavy rains in Mozambique on the weekend of February 5 and 6, so at first we concentrated our activities in Maputo where there already was flooding and then we received some information regarding the situation in the Gaza district (the southern district) and along the Limpopo River. That Sunday (Feb 6) we went there.

"That was when things started getting complicated. There were around 30,000 displaced people in Chokwe. They had no water, no latrines, no food. The problem was that the road from Maputo to Chokwe had been cut off by the flooding and parts of the road were destroyed. It was very difficult to plan an intervention and everything should have been done by helicopter. But there were not enough and there was agreement that all helicopters should be used for rescue (not goods transport).

"Getting supplies around the countryside was a logistical nightmare. To get from Chibuto to Chokwe, we traveled through Xai Xai in the south (further downstream, the opposite direction, and closer to the sea) and then west to Macia and then north to Chokwe. But we did not know that the bridge from Xai Xai to Macia had been cut off.

"We planned to get the goods across by boat and we managed to travel by road and get the boat within 30 kilometers ... and into the Changane River and then followed it north.

"But following the river had its own challenges. Normally the river is about 100 meters wide. With the flooding, however, it was 3 kilometers wide making it almost impossible to follow the proper course of the river. We found ourselves blocked a few times in the middle of nowhere.

"By this time, Doctors Without Borders had teams in Maputo, Chokwe, and Xai Xai to aid the flood survivors. After the first flood, tropical depression Eline came ashore on February 22, adding to the disaster by bringing more water to the already flooded rivers and countryside. Although there was some relief that the damage was not as severe as had been expected, the additional water brought new and rapidly climbing flood depths

"There was more water and flooding on Feb 25. Tropical depression Eline had hit on Feb 22 and although it did not do as much damage as we feared, it did bring a lot of water and more flooding. And the water was in the Limpopo and had to run through Chokwe and the rest of Mozambique.

"But the most frightening was that people got trapped in the first flood and then, when the waters fell, they tried to go home and save what they could. But they were not ready for the second flood.

"On Sunday (Feb 27) it was a complete disaster. The water level had risen by five meters in less than two hours. There was a sense of complete panic as everyone was trying to escape. People kept trying to cross this river and the (current) was very strong. Finally the only thing we could do was put this big rope across the main road so people would have something to hold on to and pull their way across. Some people managed and others did not.

"We were using our boat to pick people up and rescue some of the people in the trees. And in a couple of hours we had rescued about 100 people.

"The helicopters rescued 2,700 people. But the pilots were putting them on the ground too close to the rising water. They were dropping them sooner so they could make more trips. But then the rescued still had to be moved again. We were finally able to use trucks to take them further north.

"There were people on the road just outside Chokwe where they had reached dry land. But they were not safe. They were exhausted and were sitting down to rest and many did not understand that the water was still rising. Plus there were parents who had lost children and did not want to leave. We had to force them onto the trucks so we could take them to safety.

"Sunday evening we were still in the boat saving as many people as possible when we lost contact with one of the Doctors Without Borders teams. We saw them the next day from the air but could not reach them. The pilot put me down on the roof of a factory and then I tried to contact them. The pilot would return in one hour to bring me back.

"On another roof, just a few hundred meters away, there were about 500 people. But the only noise you could hear was the water rushing by and the occasional cry for help.

"Just ten minutes before the helicopter returned, I managed to get the attention of the Doctors Without Borders team. I had to leave on the helicopter immediately but they were told to be on the roof at 5 pm and I would return with another helicopter to bring them back to base. They initially refused because they wanted to stay in the field but I had to insist. Saturday they had been in the boat and water. Then they had spent the night in the open on Sunday. They stayed at base for Monday but returned on Tuesday.

"By Tuesday the water had fallen and the outskirts of Chokwe was reachable by truck.

"Today [Thursday March 2] has been frustrating as the water levels have fallen near Chokwe. People are able to walk in the water as it is often less than a meter high. Now it is too shallow to use boats but too deep for vehicles. In Chokwe, there is no food or clean water so the rescue efforts are continuing just trying to feed them.

"There are 30,000 in the Chakalan camp who need to have assistance organised. About 150 children are there without their parents.

"How long this emergency continues will change depending on whether or not there is a cholera outbreak. Then nobody can be sure. Either way, food and nutrition programs will have to be started for the displaced population, so that means care will be ongoing for at least another six months.

"There are warnings of a new storm, that may hit late next week. The water is receding and people will start to head back again. But they are completely exhausted. There are a lot of sick and I am worried that another flood will come."