Mozambique: Tough choices as floodwater subsides

News and Press Release
Originally published
MAPUTO, 9 March 2007 (IRIN) - As the ongoing relief effort in Mozambique's flooded Zambezi Valley enters its second month, government officials are shifting some of their attention to post-disaster reconstruction.

Planning minister Aiuba Cuereneia said this week that US$71 million would be needed for the permanent resettlement of people living in flood-prone areas. The money would also be used to rebuild infrastructure, such as schools and bridges, in the Zambezi Valley, in the centre of the country, and in areas to the south hit by Cyclone Favio two weeks ago.

The question of resettlement is complicated. Government officials have often voiced frustration about the resources expended every few years on rescuing people in the flood zones. "These funds that we are spending now should be applied to development efforts," Zambezia provincial governor Carvalho Muaria told the government-run newspaper, Noticias, at the outset of the recent flooding last month.

But the flood zones possess especially fertile soil that residents are loath to leave. "People have options [as to] whether they want to be resettled or not," said Paulo Zucula, director of the national disaster agency. He estimated that about 40,000 of the more than 100,000 evacuated residents living in temporary accommodation centres would choose permanent resettlement on higher ground.

"The government is encouraging people not to go back [to the flood zones], but there's no order that they cannot go," he added. "The government is preaching that people should live in safe areas. There is a series of measures to encourage that, [but] the constitution says people can do whatever they want."

Yet, at an accommodation centre in Caia, on the Zambezi River, which forms the border between Mozambique's Sofala and Zambezia provinces, a spokesman for traditional leader Domingos Alfanete said evacuated residents would only be able to return to their homes to work the fields and would not be allowed to live there on a permanent basis, due to "government force". The families in the temporary camp, visited by IRIN two weeks ago, had been evacuated from two islands in the Zambezi about 30km upriver from Caia.

"Of course, it makes sense not to have to go back to these communities every two, three years and evacuate everyone," said Chris McIvor, country director for Save the Children-UK. "At the same time, the reason people are going back to these places is because of the fertile land. They're making an economic calculation - no one likes having their homes flooded every few years. If the resettlement plan is going to succeed it will take that economic incentive into account."

He added: "Any substantial policy about resettlement has to adhere to clear humanitarian and human rights standards ... But I'm not saying government resettlement is infringing on those standards, and when the details are put forth, we expect that they'll meet that standard."

The government "has the well-being of people in mind", said Mark Heffernan, head of the Mozambique delegation of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). He trusted that the resettlement plan, when fully developed, would be fair.

The government, in fact, has an interest in allowing people easy access to the fertile fields. "The greatest challenge in this country is reducing poverty, and the people in these areas are very productive, and work some of the most productive land in the country, even though it's risky," he commented.

Resettlement areas are often located so that residents can leave most of their family members and possessions behind while they stay in temporary shelters in the fields.

Mozambique officials last year formulated a 10-year plan to reduce residents' vulnerability to the annual onslaught of disasters. The plan involves resettlement as well as improved early warning detection systems and education campaigns to inform people about how to prepare for a storm or flood.

The first resettlement areas were developed after the devastating floods of 2000 and 2001, in which more than 700 people died, and were deliberately placed near existing developed areas, so people would have access to schools, health centres and other systems of support they often lacked in the communities they fled. New resettlement areas tend to be attached to established ones.

In another sign of the shifting focus, disaster officials are handing over responsibility for administrating the temporary accommodation centres to provincial governors. The national disaster agency's Zucula hoped a semblance of normal life would return to the evacuated residents while they awaited the end of the storm season. Classes are being held in tents, and officials have introduced sports and social activities in the camps. "It's not a good idea having people sitting around with nothing to do," Zucula said.

As for the relief effort itself, some difficulties cropped up this week. A government official was caught hoarding stolen aid materials; the deputy director of the national disaster agency said some unidentified nongovernmental organisations were not as engaged in their work as they should be; and the head of the Mozambique delegation of relief agency Medecins Sans Frontieres-Switzerland (MSF) said his team had identified about 25,000 people in Zambezia Province who had yet to receive their first shipment of food aid.

Zucula dismissed the MSF claim, saying accommodation centres were sometimes not set up by his agency, but were improvised. "It takes some time to locate them," he commented. "Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. [But] I wouldn't believe 25,000 lack food.