Mozambique's misery goes on

Originally published
Johannesburg, South Africa. March 28 2000

As the TV cameras leave, the world faces its biggest test of commitment to the ongoing tragedy in Mozambique.

By CHRIS MCGREAL in Ilha Josina Machel

The lakes of floodwater that consumed whole towns are trickling back into Mozambique's rivers, but the TV cameras have gone, and with them the international attention that set off the scramble to rescue a drowning people.

In the next few weeks Mozambicans will have good reason to wish that the cameras were back.

It is now, at just the moment when the world's focus has moved on, that foreign governments must decide how far their commitment goes. Do they walk away, having completed the job of saving lives? Or do they stop and face a far larger task - to help Mozambique rebuild and save its once-shining economy?

Here in Ilha Josina Machel, a town still marooned in a sea of water, people are surviving at the end of a clattering lifeline of British, American and South African helicopters delivering food. But once the water drains away, the future of this community will be determined by how quickly the roads that have paved the way to prosperity are rebuilt.

Today, the government in Maputo will publish an assessment of the havoc wreaked by more than two months of flooding. It will form the basis for an appeal next month for the huge sums of money it will cost to rebuild the shattered infrastructure. But without the drama of the rescue pictures, Mozambique is far from certain of success.

The water wrecked or damaged the homes of about 250 000 people. Their livestock drowned, their crops rotted and their tools washed away. It will take years for many to recover.

But the destruction is not, at the moment at least, a catastrophe for Mozambique's much vaunted economic revival, fuelled by generous dollops of aid, rising foreign investment and a government surrender of financial control to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Most factories and other export earners were largely untouched by the floods. But there was considerable damage to the roads and railways that underpinned the boom.

The government provision ally estimates that it will need another $280m to rebuild more than 620 miles of roads that were completely swept away, and long stretches of railway track. Then there are the electricity and telephone lines, and more than 600 schools in need of repair.

The appeal for money to reconstruct the shattered infrastructure will be made at an international donors' conference in Rome in four weeks' time. Mozambique's foreign minister, Leonardo Simao, is betting on his country's status as a favourite son of western governments and global financial institutions.

He says the country is held up as too much of a success story to be allowed to fail. "Our success was a source of inspiration for many countries in Africa. If this example is left to die, we are killing their hope. This economic growth is a major condition for peace and stability in the region."

But Mozambique has failed to persuade foreign creditors to write off its debt, although a number of governments have unilaterally scrapped outstanding bilateral loans. And there are real concerns that donors will use money earmarked for development aid in the country to pay for reconstruction, at the expense of other projects.

"What we require is additional aid, not at the expense of development money," Mr Simao stressed.

The outcome of the meeting will be decisive for towns such as Ilha Josina Machel. Two months ago torrential rains flooded the Incomati river and laid waste to part of the southern end of the town. A month later a surge of water swept down the Limpopo river to the north, wrecked hundreds more homes and cut the town from the rest of Mozambique.

It is now an island, accessible only by helicopter or boat and wholly reliant on the out side world to feed itself. Even when the waters recede, the town will count on aid from the World Food Programme for at least three months. But its mayor, Samo Timoteo Samo, is stoic.

"More than 1 000 homes were destroyed in the town and surrounding villages. For those people this is a disaster. For the rest of us it is merely difficult," he said.

But difficulty could turn to disaster for the whole region. In recent years, the town prospered, selling sugar cane to a factory a few miles away. Now the crop is almost completely destroyed.

The factory is helping with an advance on future sales, so people can buy tools to replant. But the roads were ripped up by the floods. Without new ones the town can only get its crop to the factory with great difficulty, and the factory will find it virtually impossible to ship the sugar out.

Although many Mozambicans dislike the comparison, Mr Simao argues that the floods caused more devastation than the 16 years of civil war between 1978 and 94.

"It's much worse than the war if you look at the losses in terms of human beings in a short space of time, the losses of houses, schools, telecommunications systems, power lines. If you look at the losses of cows - more than 1m dead. We never had 650 000 people dependent on food aid in such a short time," he said.

"There's also the psychological impact, because those who suffered are the survivors of war. They had seven years of hope and now they are back to square one. It is very easy to get discouraged."