Mozambique

Wet and exhausted, flood survivors in Maputo face house-swallowing canyons, sickness, snakes and more rain

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by Wendy Driscoll, Press Officer
March 9, 2000, Maputo, MOZAMBIQUE -- "I lie at night thinking about the big hole that might be below me," says Veronica Antonio as she looks helplessly over a phantasmorphic landscape that has replaced the familiar homes and gardens of her neighbors, and may very soon replace her own.

Antonio, a 23-year-old mother of three, is referring to a huge swathe of land in one of Maputo's poorest neighborhoods -- the slum or bairro of Polana Caniço A. When torrential rains poured down on Mozambique in mid-February, a stretch of road of about 1 mile in length buckled and plunged more than 65 feet, swallowing houses, telephone poles and water main pipes. Hundreds of houses also collapsed into the ravine of red mud and silt. And with each day of pelting rain, the ravine widens and lengthens an average of 65 feet. Most frightening perhaps, avalanches of water have sprouted tentacle-like from the main ravine, sinking deep gullies into dozens more roads.

Women like Antonio have watched their neighbors run from collapsing houses and fear that soon it might be their turn.

"We're all suffering," says Antonio, "but we don't know where else to go."

Maputo, the capital city of flood-ravaged Mozambique, may be the country's forgotten disaster. While aid agencies and media organizations focus attention on the raging floodwaters of the Limpopo and Save Rivers to the north, Maputo's 900,000 mostly-poor residents have paid the price for their city's location, built on unstable, sandy soil, which offered little resistance to the more than three weeks of rain that has buffeted the city. At least 25,000 people in ravine-gutted slums such as Polana Caniço A now fear for their homes and livelihoods, while 52,000 more have spent weeks in ankle-deep water, raising fear for their health and safety.

"People are knee-deep in raw sewage," says Kerry Selvester, manager of CARE's urban programs in Maputo. "You can't really build latrines anymore because the ground water is so high they just fill up and overflow. There also are real concerns about snakes, which come seek higher ground when their burrows are flooded."

Snakes are yet another plague in a landscape ripe for malaria, dysentery and cholera, the latter of which is endemic in Mozambique in the best of times. When floods hit northern Mozambique in the early 1990s, more people died of snakebite than of drowning.

"Maybe God this year, he threw us away," says Maria Tivane, 52, a long-time resident of the Maxaquene bairro, as she shovels mud from the road onto her front stoop. It is a desultory attempt at sandbagging, and even as she does it, rain pours down upon her bent head.

As one of the few large-scale international humanitarian agencies working in Maputo, CARE already has dedicated up to $50,000 to flood relief for slum areas, with another $300,000 on the way. Immediate priorities include protecting key infrastructure, including a school that serves 10,000 children and a health clinic that serves 100,000 people in Polana Caniço A. This week CARE teams and community representatives will start construction of floodwalls composed of gabions -- reinforced steel wire and rocks. Future plans include support to community organizations that are working to prevent further erosion as well as capacity building of Maputo's Municipal Councils. CARE also has been asked to present its plans on urban reconstruction to The World Bank as part of the international financial organization's growing focus on reconstruction worldwide.