Interview with Emergency Specialist Hanoch Barlevi about the emergency situation this year

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Maputo, 28 March 2013 - At the end of January this year, a large wave of flood water from the Limpopo River swept through the Gaza Province in central Mozambique, driving up to 200,000 people out of their homes, and leaving large swathes of the province under water. We sat down with UNICEF Emergency Specialist Hanoch Barlevi to learn more about how the emergency unfolded, and what the situation is now.

Q: Floods are more or less recurring events in Mozambique, what was different this time?

Hanoch Barlevi: The main difference this time was obviously the scale of the emergency, in terms of people affected and spatial impact. The last time we saw a flood on this massive scale was really in the watershed year of 2000 when hundreds lost their lives and several hundred thousand were displaced. This time we were spared the large casualty numbers, thankfully, but it was otherwise comparable.

Q: At what stage did you begin sensing that a large-scale emergency was at hand?

HB: I remember that very well. During our regular meeting with the Disaster Management Institute, in late January, it was a Monday, I think, representatives from the Water Management Directorate sounded a warning that the continuing rains in upstream countries, especially South Africa and Zimbabwe, were reaching such a level that the Limpopo was likely to overflow. Until then the concern was really the Zambezi River further north. But after that meeting, we all got into action and activated the contingency plans for Gaza.

Q: What kinds of preparation plans were in place and how well did they serve the emergency teams?

HB: The technical part of the early warning system worked well. Technicians in charge of meteorological forecasting and of water management did their job. So this is a very positive development. The contingency plans which were in place included scenarios, and these were used in the lead-up to the flood. Using scenarios is standard in disaster risk reduction, and they are helpful tools that help estimate impact, plan for measures that need to be in place, resources that would be needed and so on. These are tools that the Government of Mozambique and the Disaster Management Institute have done a very good job at developing, and we see very concretely the results when comparing casualty figures this year to the year 2000. Many lives were spared, because the system worked.

Q: What are some of the lessons you learned in dealing with this emergency?

HB: There always is room for improvement, and we try to make sure that we learn from our mistakes so fewer children and families suffer in future. One thing we will need to address is how to make sure that communication about the situation actually reaches all the way down to the grass roots levels, to the people who are at risk. We need to verify that at-risk communities are being informed of the incoming flood and that they are being evacuated. From our point of view, we need to move into the area together with the government at an even earlier stage to assist local efforts with the immediate flow of communication about the situation on the ground. Second, supplies can be prepared earlier, loaded in trucks and ready to move in anticipation of the arrival of displaced populations. This will shorten our response time and reduce suffering. There were no outbreak of diseases at accommodation centers and the distribution of supplies and services went relatively well, in my opinion, but we can always do better.

Q: What is the situation on the ground now?

HB: The flood waters are mostly gone, and all accommodation centers are now closed. People have moved back into their home communities, beginning to rebuild their lives and homes. There are about 700 families that have been resettled in other safer areas. They have been given plots of land and will rebuild their lives there. There is a lot of work to do in terms of recovery, which will probably take up to a year to complete.

Q: What is UNICEF doing to help the returnees?

HB: In terms of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), we are cleaning and helping repair the water points, especially in rural areas. We are also helping communities repair and rebuild their latrines. In nutrition, UNICEF supports the reinstatement of screening services for malnutrition and replenishment of therapeutic feeding supplies. We are also doing work in prevention of malaria, which is a big problem in the province, by distributing mosquito nets. Schools are being cleaned and refurbished with school kits and learners’ kits for the children. WASH in schools is a special focus, to make sure the access to safe water is restored for schoolchildren. In terms of protection, a considerable number of registration documents were lost in the floods throughout the province. In some areas, such as Guija, they actually lost all their registration archive, so we are supporting the work that needs to be done to re-register everyone. UNICEF is also helping provide psychosocial support in the aftermath of the emergency, as well as distributing family kits to vulnerable households. All our recovery work is implemented in coordination with government counterparts and our partners in the Humanitarian Country Team, and will take about a year or so to complete. The flood waters that devastated Gaza Province may have receded, but the affected communities still need all available help to get back to normal again.