Jennifer Abrahamson reports.
Machanga, March 24 - Julieta Henrique believed she had found a way to exorcise the almost biblical forces of nature which curse the Machanga district of central Mozambique.
After repeatedly losing her crops to floods or low rainfall, she had planted drought-resistant sweet potato and millet. Earlier this month, nature fought back.
In the first week of March, Cyclone Japhet swept through Mozambique. Its gale force winds and torrential rains left a trail of devastation in their wake, before heading west into Zimbabwe. Worse was to come.
Swollen by the cyclone's thick sheets of rain, Zimbabwe's rivers rushed down toward the Indian Ocean feeding into the Save River, which forms a natural border between Mozambique's two central provinces: Machanga District in eastern Sofala Province and Govuru District in northern Inhambane Province.
CURSE OF NATURE
On March 9, when the Save burst its banks, the floodwaters engulfed entire towns and villages across Machanga and Govuru. Roads were replaced by murky waterways, entire mud huts were washed away and household belongings & livestock disappeared.
Julietta's crops, equipped to fight drought not water, were simply drowned as the curse of nature struck Mozambique again.
"Thankfully nobody died, but we lost everything," she says, "All of our animals, our chickens and goats, all of our crops, were washed away by the floods. Everything is gone."
The 36-year-old mother of four and grandmother of one fled her village of Gonjone for the safe haven of Machanga Town.
The one kilometre walk from Gonjone to Machanga used to take half-an-hour. Wading through soupy waist-deep waters, the same journey took Julietta and her family seven hours.
The floods did not spare Machanga. Large sections of its main road to the outside world were also washed away, but there is enough dry ground to provide shelter for displaced families like Juliettas.
They gather in bunches, watching over small tins of maize cooking on makeshift fire stoves.
"To save our lives, we had to come here, we could not stay in our village or we would die," says Julietta, who has found temporary shelter on the floor of a local government building adjacent to the WFP warehouse in Machanga.
Like thousands of other flood victims, her family's survival depends on the food aid, which WFP had stored in the Machanga warehouse as part of fits flood contingency plan. The agency's own efforts to guard against Mozambique's natural curse prepositioned food aid on the town's higher ground, out of the Save's destructive reach.
Last week, the agency distributed emergency rations to some 12,000 people in Machanga Town.
But not all flood victims have been able to reach the WFP food distribution site.
Villages like Javane, located 80 kilometres upriver from Machanga, have remained completely isolated, their roads submerged by floodwaters.
In response, WFP launched an emergency airlift on March 16 to provide at least 200 metric tons of food aid to villagers who have been totally cut off by the latest round of Mozambique floods.
The South African-owned Mi-8 helicopter, capable of carrying four tonnes of food, delivered an initial emergency ration of nutritional Corn Soya Blend to the stranded communities of Xixire, Cave, Manguezi and Javane.
More supplies of maize meal, beans, salt, High Energy Biscuits and vegetable oil is being airlifted into these and other communities.
With the main road linking Machanga to outside commercial centres unlikely to be repaired for weeks or even months, the airlift will also be used to replenish the Machanga warehouse.
WORSE TO COME
Even before the floods, the humanitarian situation was set to deteriorate dramatically throughout Mozambique over the coming months.
The country is entering its second year of drought and faces the very real likelihood of another failed harvest in April.
WFP is currently targeting some 650,000 people in drought-hit parts of the country, including Tete, Gaza, Inhambane, Sofala, Manica and Maputo provinces.
"The drought has prevented the harvest of maize, and now other drought-resistant crops have washed away. The crop is totally lost and these people may need food aid for another year," says Celina Sixpence, a WFP food monitor in Machanga and former beneficiary of the agency's food aid in Angola.
At Javane, where villagers are preparing for the devastating failure of a fourth consecutive harvest, Machanga's curse of natural has already claimed its first victim.
One month ago, the village reported a hunger-related death. Without continued food aid, it might not be the last.