By Mark South
Unprecedented floods in Zimbabwe are set to worsen with flood waters now unable to drain into reservoirs and dams that are already at capacity.
Agricultural communities in the north west of the country, at the confluence of the Musengezi, Hoya and Mukumbura rivers, have already been ravaged by the worst floods in two decades, fuelled by torrential rains in the up-stream highlands. Now flood waters have begun flowing back into the region from the already overflowing Cahora Bassa reservoir down-stream in Mozambique, and are not expected to subside until mid-March at the earliest.
Ejina Chirindo, vice chair of the Muzarabani rural district council, was part of a team ferrying people to safety from the flooded village of Chaderika in Muzarabani district. "We had made several trips to pick people up and every time we went back we could see the flooding was getting worse coming from downstream," she said. "The bridge across the river is now flooded, we can't get to the village by road anymore and the people there are marooned.
"When we saw it the water had already reached waist deep in places but if the rains and back flow continue it will get even deeper."
Back flow from the Capora Bassa reservoir is not unusual in itself with the lowland Muzarabani district often experiencing mild floods around mid-February. But flooding this early in the year is virtually unheard of, and authorities now fear the combination of floods from both up stream and down will exacerbate an already disastrous situation. According to the district council, the rains which began in mid-December - three months earlier than usual - have already left almost 10,000 people without food and washed away around 500 homes.
Leon Cheuseni, 43, lost his home when floods poured through his village, demolishing huts and sweeping away possessions and precious food stores. He is now sheltering in a government run Agricultural Rural Development Authority farm along with approximately 85 other families.
"At around six in the morning I was helping friends who had been affected by the floods. When I returned home to check on my own property the water was almost a metre deep in both my huts," he said. "To begin with the water came very slowly so we didn't realize how serious the situation was, and then very suddenly the water was overwhelming. We managed to retrieve a few items but the flood has left me and my family with basically nothing."
One of the first humanitarian agencies on the ground, the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society, was able to issue Cheuseni and his family with a tent as well as a jerry can for water, a kitchen set of pots, plates, cups and spoons, and a mosquito net. "Without that help I really don't now what we would have done - the Red Cross put a roof over our heads and made sure we were safe, without them I don't want to think about what could have happened," he added.
As the waters continue to rise, as well as coordinating ongoing evacuation and emergency aid efforts, agencies are growing increasingly concerned about the longer-term impacts of the disaster. "We haven't seen floods like this for 20 years and from what we can tell it's going to get worse before it gets better, both in terms of the rising flood waters and the humanitarian crisis," said Calvine Matsinde, Zimbabwe Red Cross' national programme coordinator.
"The volume of water is likely to become greater and we are also going to see an increasing secondary threat of disease. The sanitation systems have been completely washed out, which means dirty water has contaminated clean water supplies, affecting drinking water and increasing the threat of water borne diseases like cholera.
"At the same time the stagnant pools of water in this warm area provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, which increases the threat of malaria...we have already seen a spike in cases of malaria and diarrhea related to the floods."
Food supplies could also become a major issue, said Matsinde, with farmers having lost their entire summer crop and unlikely to be able to grow enough food for themselves for another six months.
"We were prepared for this disaster, which is why we were able to get vital aid to people so quickly," said Matsinde. "With the support of the government, other aid agencies and our partner Red Cross societies we need to make sure we can continue to deliver the lifesaving supplies and education which are desperately needed."