More Rain As Maputo Urges Total Debt Relief

By Steven Swindells

MAPUTO (Reuters) - Fresh rains threatened flood relief operations in Mozambique Thursday as the country warned that moves by western creditor nations to defer its punishing debt service payments failed to meet its needs.

Foreign Minister Leonardo Simao welcomed an initiative by the Paris Club of creditor nations to defer all of Mozambique's debt servicing payments -- about $1.5 million a week -- until a global accord canceling the country's debt was agreed.

But he told reporters: ''We are satisfied that this step has been taken in relation to bilateral debt, but it falls short of our expectations. Our request was for total cancellation...we continue with that request and with that hope.''

A Paris Club official said what counted was that Mozambique did not have to pay out any money in the short term, and that this would hold the country over at zero cost until the wider international lending community agreed to a total write-off.

''This is the best help we can provide,'' the official added.

Regional analysts said the measure would help Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, to help recover from a month of devastating floods which have left about 500 people dead and displaced at least 300,000.

''On first reading it is going to be positive news for Mozambique in light of what's happened this year,'' Mike Moran, Treasury Economist at Standard Chartered in London, said.

Despite an external debt burden of around $8.3 billion, before the floods Mozambique had boasted one of Africa's fastest-growing economies with annual growth of more than 10 percent during the past three years.

The Paris Club's decision should help to free up funds for Mozambique to begin the massive task of rebuilding towns, roads and railways devastated by a month of flooding.

Japan donated $4.65 million Thursday for rebuilding 15 bridges and for buying rice, while the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association of South Africa donated 32 tonnes of medicines and supplies.

Rain Hampers International Relief Effort

But rain which fell heavily in some southern regions on Wednesday and continued for a fourth day in the north on Thursday presented serious logistical problems for the international relief effort.

Aid workers said a major road from Beira to Save, in a badly affected region, along which aid teams carried up to 50 tonnes of food a day, was closed because of the rain.

The road was unlikely to reopen for another week, the World Food Program (WFP) said, and only if the rain stopped.

''Rains are of concern in Beira and therefore we cannot rely on truck transport. We could start to run into problems if we can't get access after eight to 10 days,'' Lindsey Davies, a spokeswoman for the WFP, told Reuters.

Most countries involved in airborne relief efforts have said they will continue for about two weeks. Time is now running out and logistics experts are worried that complications will arise if the air relief is reduced.

''If they pull out we will not be able to deliver as much food, particularly if the road situation does not improve,'' Wilfred De Broewer, air logistics coordinator for the overall operation, told Reuters.

Britain has extended funding for five helicopters to remain in operation, but Germany has said its operations may be scaled back by the end of the week. The Americans say they plan to stay for at least two more weeks.

South Africa has said it will stay as long as needed.

''What we have seen out there continues to cause a lot of concern,'' South African Defense Minister Mosioua Lekota told reporters after visiting refugee camps Thursday.

He said large numbers of people remained homeless and still more food aid was needed at the camps.

Aid workers say the biggest immediate threats are malnutrition, particularly amongst children, and water-borne diseases such as cholera and malaria.

Two cholera wards have been set up at the central hospital in Maputo and a third will open later this week in readiness for an expected rise in the number of cholera victims.

Cholera is endemic to Maputo, but the expectation is that the flooding, which has left lakes of stagnant water throughout the capital, will accelerate the problem.

''There do seem to be signals that we could be facing an epidemic and we are putting plans in place to deal with that,'' said Andy Seale, a spokesman for the World Health Organization.

So far there have been about 190 cholera cases in Maputo since the flooding, which doctors say is slightly higher than usual. The government says 11 people have died from the disease since the floods struck in mid-February.

Spanish doctors at a field hospital in Chiaquelane, north of the capital, said almost every child they had treated since the hospital opened eight days ago was malnourished.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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