Mozambique: Why are troops not mending the roads?

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 8 2000

The role of the foreign soldiers in the Mozambique rescue effort is now unclear


The first American troops arrived in Mozambique yesterday amid growing doubts about how more than 1 000 soldiers from at least six countries are going to contribute to the rapidly expanding relief effort.

While the influx of dozens of helicopters and planes has met an urgent need by delivering food and other aid to at least 250 000 flood victims, some UN officials and aid workers believe military expertise should also be used to rapidly rebuild Mozambique's devastated roads and railways.

The US commander, Major General Joseph Wehrle, denied his mission was too late. Even though flash floods devastated large areas around the Limpopo and Save rivers 10 days ago, the general said the Clinton administration did not give the Pentagon the go-ahead for the relief mission until Friday; and South Africa, a rear base for the Americans, did not grant them landing rights until the weekend.

But Mozambique's former first lady, Graca Machel, now the wife of Nelson Mandela, added her voice to the criticism of foreign governments' slow response to the crisis.

"It seems the world has no conscience when it comes to human life," she said.

At least 1 000 foreign troops have either arrived in or are destined for Mozambique, but it is not clear what the bulk of the soldiers will be doing.

Hundreds can be seen milling around the tarmac at Maputo airport with mountains of kit. However, while most of the German, Spanish, American, British, French and Portuguese forces include specialists such as medics, there appeared to be a shortage of expertise in some of the areas crucial to the relief operations.

Engineers, for example, would be particularly welcome given the large numbers of bridges and roads washed away by the flood waters, the force of which also buckled railway lines.

Aid workers have been asking for some days why foreign armies, with their bridge-building skills, are not also being directed to rebuild the roads and railways, which would allow better aid distribution. The road north from Maputo to the devastated town of Xai-Xai and on to Beira is breached in several places.

The World Food Programme's (WFP) deputy executive director, Namanga Ngongi, said rehabilitating overland transport should be a priority. "Food delivery by air is very, very expensive. If we can move some by road, we can save money and reach more people. This is why we need to accelerate road repairs as the waters recede," he said.

At the moment, reconstruction of the roads is being left to gangs of unskilled Mozambican workers, equipped with shovels and sandbags.

Fresh rains began falling on Maputo and some of the flooded areas yesterday, with forecasts of a heavier downpour to come. The UN is discouraging people from returning to their homes in the stricken areas because of the risk of further flooding.

Aid workers also fear a serious outbreak of disease caused by corpses and animal car casses, and a shortage of clean water. The World Health Organisation warned that reports of malaria had "risen sharply" and that people are increasingly at risk from cholera.

The WFP estimates that it will have to feed some 650 000 Mozambicans, most of them for at least six months. But how long international food aid will be depends on whether the country's farmland drains in time for the planting season, which begins in three weeks. If not, many people could be reliant on aid for 10 months.

The combined foreign aid pledge from at least 16 western and African governments has risen to more than $100m, including emergency relief and money for long-term recon struction. Washington is also proposing greater debt relief for Mozambique.

But Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, yesterday pleaded for more assistance: "Let me appeal to the whole world to give them as much help as possible, and as soon as possible," he said.