Mozambique: Fate of flood victims hangs on meagre aid

Originally published
Johannesburg, South Africa. March 1 2000

Anger is mounting at the world's inadequate response to the Mozambique flood disaster as agencies plead for help.


Tens of thousands of missing people are beyond the reach of the international rescue operation in Mozambique because of insufficient helicopters and boats, despite the promises of millions of dollars in foreign aid in recent days.

A few South African helicopter crews yesterday continued to pluck hundreds of people from flooded towns and villages in Gaza province along the Limpopo river, less than an hour's flight from the capital, Maputo. But there is growing concern about the fate of entire towns near the badly flooded Save river further north, and the United Nations predicts that a new wave of floods will hit the region within days.

At least 50 000 people are unaccounted for in towns and villages along the Save river valley. The towns of Massangena and Zinavane were already flooded before further floods on Saturday night. But with rescue efforts concentrated elsewhere, there is no word on the fate of the inhabitants.

Roy Trivedy, director of Save the Children in Mozambique, which is working in two other flooded towns at the mouth of the river, said there is an urgent need for a rescue mission to explore the rest of the region.

"The big question is that those people aren't here, so where are they? Clearly there is a very sizeable number of people unaccounted for. Almost all the people rescued reported seeing people washed away. There is a high likelihood of very high casualties," he said. "We have two helicopters trying to save several thousand people we already know are stranded. We need more helicopters. The need for more boats and fuel is urgent."

Save the Children is working with 10 000 survivors at the mouth of Save river. Many are sheltering in trees or on roofs.

"Roughly 85% of the efforts are going into Gaza," said Trivedy. "There may be very good reasons for that because of the numbers of people and the major cities that are affected there. What is going on in Gaza is really terrible, but what's going on in Save is equally terrible and it needs more help."

So far, however, there are simply not enough helicopters and other means of rescue to serve both regions at once.

Jean-Jacques Graisse, the World Food Programme director of operations, warned that the situation for thousands of people is worsening, saying they "increasingly run the risk of illness and starvation if humanitarian assistance is not immediately expanded".

He added: "With more water coming, the disaster could spread much wider. Thousands of people are stranded, some on rooftops, in trees, on anything they can cling too."

He said the priorities are threefold: tens of thousands of people still urgently need rescuing from flooded towns and valleys.

Once most of the destitute have been plucked to safety, they have to be housed and fed. It will take a massive airlift to bring hundreds of tons of food and water purification equipment, and tents and blankets, to the camps being set up.

Then there is the urgent need to rebuild Mozambique's infrastructure, particularly its roads, to ease the delivery of aid over the coming months and limit long-term damage to the economy.

The WFP has delivered tons of maize to some areas, and aid workers say many survivors are in better condition than might be expected. But there are fears that without access to clean water soon, diseases such as cholera and dysentery could take hold.

Emergency workers say there is confusion about the time and place of the arrival of aid. Some point out that the floods began three weeks ago, which gave the UN time to organise a more substantial relief effort. They note that the two most senior UN officials in Mozambique have both been abroad since the crisis struck.

Many Mozambicans have wondered about the role of their own government, particularly President Joaquim Chissano, who has had little to do or say during the crisis. He finally flew to Gaza yesterday.

"I saw three corpses uncovered by the water and so there must be many more," Mr Chissano said.

-- The Guardian, March 1 2000.