Preparedness pays as hundreds of thousands flee from floods in Mozambique

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By Alexander Matheou

Yvonne is 64. She has spent the last six days on a roof. The rest of her family fled the village ten days ago after packing everything they could onto a small cart, but Yvonne stayed, hoping the oncoming floods would recede quickly so she could salvage and protect her house and her things. But the water flowed in and rose up fast. So she climbed onto the roof and waited.

When she felt the water was shallow enough, she climbed down and walked 25km to an agreed meeting point. As she arrives, the family gather round, cheering and clapping. Yvonne does a little dance and joins the six children and three adults huddled under a plastic sheet.

Scattered around her and stretching along miles of road are tens of thousands of other families, huddled under dense trees for shelter. A few have tents, some have plastic sheets, but most are out in the open. The majority are women and children. They are cooking, breastfeeding, fanning themselves, sleeping and braiding their children's hair. They have all managed to salvage something from their homes so they sit around piles of cases and bags.

That they have been able to save anything is testament to the one piece of good news in a crisis that has displaced 200,000 people. The early warning systems worked.

Improved climate science, combined with the commitment of the authorities to disseminate warnings through radio and volunteers with the Mozambique Red Cross Society, meant people had time to pack and leave for higher ground. During the floods of 2000, over 700 people died. So far in 2013, fewer than 100 have lost their lives.

Yet while the early warning is impressive, the overall response is less so. In this one district of Gaza, 100,000 people are sleeping in the open, and there are also problems with food, water and hygiene. Relief is being distributed, but it is in painfully short supply. Roads are still crammed with moving people, and the numbers are swelling.

Spirits, though, remain high. These families have lost precious reserves of food; their houses and many of their belongings are gone; yet the women still make sure their clothes and children are clean. For now there is still laughter and conversation.

Conditions will get worse. Constant rains seep through the leaves and chill those huddled beneath. At night there is no protection from mosquitoes. The stench from the bushes, which are being used as latrines, is stronger each day.

"I am tired and want to leave," says 25-year-old Anisia. "We wanted to go back today but we've been warned that more rain is coming. Last time, people went back too early and got trapped. So for now we have to stay."

Along the roadsides, women dry the soaked maize and rice that they have pulled from beneath the water. In front of a flooded food store, crowds of women comb through filthy, black pools to find drenched bags of maize. Guards chase them away with sticks. The women tumble and splash away, roaring with laughter and dripping wet, but clinging to their prizes. This produce is rotten, selling it and eating it will cause a major health hazard over the coming days.

The temptation to return is strong. When the waters recede, the soil will be fertile and the women want to get back and plant. Their houses will be buried in mud, the smell of dead animals and the buzzing of insects will be hideous, but at least they will be growing, not using, the little that they have.

There will be lessons. Should people have been more prepared? There are parts of the region, for example along the Okavango Delta in Botswana, where communities have learned to live with flooding. They build their houses on high foundations or on stilts, and villages maintain boats for movement and evacuation. But it has been over ten years since these communities in Mozambique have faced floods like this. How much will they will be willing to invest in infrastructure to protect against a rare occurrence?

For now though, the immediate challenge is relief. 200,000 people will need a lot of water, food, sanitation and shelter to stay healthy out in the open before they can return home safely and face the struggle of rebuilding their lives.