Early warning saves lives in Mozambique

By Alice Kociejowski in Vilankulos, Mozambique

"The waters just started to rise and no-one knew what to do. Everyone panicked. They grabbed their children and ran. They left everything behind."

Anita Wanisella, 48, recalls the devastating floods of 2000, when images of Mozambicans stranded in treetops above swirling floodwaters made international headlines. Seven hundred people died in those floods, and thousands lost their homes, properties and livelihoods.

A lot has changed since then. When cyclone Fávio swept through Anita's village of Pambara 2 in Inhambane province in February of this year, she was one of many who played a crucial role in preparing the community and making sure that people and property remained safe.

"When we heard the cyclone was coming, we warned the community and advised them to strengthen their houses, tie down their roofs and keep their children home from school," Anita explained. "Houses were damaged, but no-one lost their lives."

Anita is a member of a local disaster committee, set up as part of the Mozambique Red Cross' disaster preparedness programme. The programme, which began in Inhambane province in 2002, uses simple techniques to warn communities of approaching natural disasters.

By establishing disaster committees and providing them with the necessary tools to prepare for and mitigate disasters it aims to empower communities to reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards such as flooding and cyclones.

A reality of vulnerability

"Responding to disasters is a reality in this province," says Maria Gina Mauaie, secretary of the Inhambane branch of Mozambique Red Cross.

The province, on the south coast of Mozambique, is, like the rest of the country, prone to both floods and droughts. Mozambique's coastline also forms almost the entire western perimeter of an extremely active tropical cyclone belt - the South-West Indian Ocean Basin - producing almost 10 per cent of the world's cyclones annually.

"Our programme is making sure that communities can respond effectively and quickly in times of disaster," continues Mauaie.

"We started by asking communities about their traditional coping mechanisms, for example some communities predicted heavy rains according to the movement of ants uphill. Then we built on these traditions and worked with communities to identify escape routes in times of floods, and set up a system for broadcasting cyclone alerts."

The Red Cross programme trains five volunteers per community and provides them with equipment such as radios and whistles to help them disseminate cyclone alerts and respond to disasters as well as information materials that explain how to effectively communicate alerts to communities. These disaster committees are also able to provide help with first aid, beneficiary identification and needs assessments in the wake of disasters.

In Pambara 2, Anita and her fellow disaster committee members heard government cyclone warnings about cyclone Fávio via radios donated through the Red Cross programme.

The cyclone warning system was set up by the government and National Meteorology Institute in response to the devastating floods of 2000 and 2001, and uses a three coloured system to identify the proximity of the cyclone.

Radios play a critical part of the warning system, as Anita explains:

"People didn't believe us at first that a cyclone was coming. They were asking us how we could speak with God to find out such news about the weather. So we followed the instructions given by the Red Cross and organised the community into small groups. We took the radio to each group and played the government broadcast so the community could hear it for themselves."

Local Red Cross branches helped the committees to alert people, through megaphones and visits to schools. After the cyclone the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sent in an emergency health unit, and water, relief, logistics and telecommunications specialists to support Mozambique Red Cross to provide emergency assistance to survivors of the cyclone.

However, as the success of the cyclone early warning system demonstrates, it is Mozambicans themselves who hold the key to coping with disasters and who have the determination to reduce their own vulnerability.

The Red Cross, like the rest of Mozambique, knows that natural disasters are a fact of life in this region. With climate change an ever present threat, the frequency of cyclones, drought and floods could increase.

Looking to the future

What is striking about this disaster preparedness programme is its sustainability - financial support for the programme in Inhambane province ended in 2006, but the disaster committees have continued to operate since then, using the skills learnt through the Red Cross training to protect their communities.

However, with 120 districts to cover across the country, Red Cross resources are stretched to the maximum and there are still vast areas in need of early warning support.

"We need more support, more technical staff with knowledge of climate change and risk reduction so we can support more vulnerable communities to mitigate disasters," explains Rabeca Chalufo, head of the disaster management team at Mozambique Red Cross.

"There's a big difference now in community awareness. This year, although we had floods and cyclone, the mortality rate was not as high as in 2000. Communities have learnt from past experience and our programme has helped prepare them for future disasters. Our final objective is to bring this awareness to all vulnerable communities across Mozambique".

Back in Inhambane province, Anita Wanisella has the final word on the success of the early warning programme:

"The Red Cross taught is what we can do for ourselves. We felt much safer this year. As members of the local committee, we are responsible for looking after our community. We were able to help them because we knew what was going to happen."