By Mark South
In the wake of floods which have left thousands homeless, the Zimbabwe Red Cross are seeking long-term solutions to the humanitarian disaster. The Muzarabani region, close to the border with Mozambique in the north east of the country, experiences minor flooding in most years, but this year heavy rains have resulted in the highest water levels for two decades. Many farming families are new to the region, attracted by Muzarabani's famously productive soil, and, according to Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Red Cross Emma Kundishora, their lack of awareness of the flood threat made them particularly vulnerable.
'A lot of people have moved to the area quite recently because the land is so fertile. Crops grow very well there, sometimes farmers don't even need to use fertilizer, and a lot of the people affected by the flooding are new arrivals. It's a very attractive place to live as far as agriculture is concerned,' she said. 'People who have lived there a long time know how to build only on the higher ground but recently a lot more huts had been built close to the river and on the low-lying fields. These huts could not withstand the flooding and the people who lived there are now homeless.'
Working in conjunction with the local authorities and other aid agencies the Red Cross had been encouraging people not to build on the vulnerable flood plains and to move to higher ground. With their houses wiped from the face of the land, many families now have no choice but to head to higher ground where the Red Cross has been distributing shelter and other practical aid.
The challenge now is, as Kundishora sees it, to make this short-term relocation to higher land permanent. 'We're helping people move to higher ground temporarily and in the long term we need to look at resettling people on higher ground permanently, away from the danger of flooding,' explained Kundishora. 'In Muzarabani and other areas we know that if there are heavy rains then they will flood - we were aware of the danger, we were prepared and because of this we were the first humanitarian agency on the ground.
'A lot of people have already moved to higher ground but the danger is that as the waters subside they will begin creeping back into the vulnerable areas.' Even in the face of ruinous flooding, the secretary general knows that convincing people not to return to the site of their former homes will be a hard sell, but because many of those affected are new arrivals, Kundishora hopes that they will have yet to develop the strong ties to their land which has made relocation schemes in other areas so difficult to implement.
The biggest challenge she sees is one of practicality, with the need for new settlements on the high ground to be equipped with sufficient infrastructure to attract the farming families. 'After these latest floods I think those who are new to the area will now be ready to move, but they need to have somewhere to move to,' she said. 'People need shelter, they need places to rebuild, they need clean water, they need access to schools, and they need food now and food security for the future. 'These are all strands of the Red Cross response and we are cooperating across the board to ensure this is a successful, sustainable long term recovery.'