Mozambique floods: a natural disaster in slow motion

Published on 19 February 2007

Mozambique is reeling from massive floods after the Zambezi river broke its banks. WFP spokesperson Michael Huggins took a trip to the disaster area.

Mozambique is reeling from massive floods after the Zambezi river broke its banks. WFP spokesperson Michael Huggins took a trip to the disaster area.

Flying over the Zambezi River basin in central Mozambique is like watching a natural disaster in slow motion.

For several weeks, waters from neighbouring countries have slowly filled Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa Dam, forcing authorities to undertake a controlled release of surplus water, which combined with flood waters from the Zambezi’s tributaries, has caused flooding over a huge expanse of land and forced 85,000 people to seek shelter on higher ground.

Relative success

So far, however, this year’s flooding in Mozambique is a relative success story compared with the catastrophic Mozambique floods of 2000 and 2001.

Copyright: 2007 WFP/Michael Huggins

The government was well prepared and had a contingency plan in place to rapidly respond in conjunction with the humanitarian community.

Based in the town of Caia, in the centre of the flood zone, the Government’s National Institute for Disaster Management (INGC), is at the forefront of coordinating relief efforts.

Early warning

The early warning of residents along the 800-kilometre Zambezi River saved countless lives before flood waters hit alert levels.

But many people, in despair about losing their crops, livestock and possessions, waited until the final moments before fleeing their homes.

The military was called in to help with some evacuations, and WFP put a helicopter on standby to assist with these efforts. WFP had 3,000 metric tons of food pre-positioned near the flood zone and was able to immediately start distributions.

Delivering to isolated communities

So far, 120 tons of food has been distributed in districts around Caia and another 130 tons of food are in the pipeline for the coming days. A total of about 10,000 people affected by the Zambezi Valley floods have so far received WFP food.

WFP has also been delivering food by helicopter to thousands of people in isolated communities cut off from by the flood waters.

In Chiramba, where the helicopter went this particular day, nearly 20,000 people have been affected by the floods, although only 1,200 people needed immediate assistance because they were forced to evacuate their homes.

Under control

The situation in central Mozambique, for the time being, appears to be under control.

Heavy rain could resume at any time and Mozambique’s rainy season does not usually finish until the end of March

However, the crisis is far from over. The people of central Mozambique will need humanitarian assistance for months to come. Most people lost crops that they would have harvested in May.

This food supply would have lasted through to early 2008. People in this part of the country also grow a second crop each year but the flood waters are unlikely to recede in time for this planting to take place.

Storm clouds loom

The skies are also not clear. Heavy rain could resume at any time and Mozambique’s rainy season does not usually finish until the end of March.

Flood levels are currently already at about the same levels as in March 2001, when the region experienced one of its worst ever floods.

The dam has started reducing its flow but if rains increase in neighbouring countries, the flood gates at the Cahorra Bassa dam may have to again be opened wider, which might tip many communities on the edge of the flood waters into an uncertain future.

"Wild card"

It is estimated by the government that if the flood waters continue to rise, then up to 285,000 people will require assistance, including about 5,000 tons of food for the next three months.

The ‘wild card’ is still whether or not the central region will be hit by cyclones – which are also seasonal at this time of year. A strong cyclone could prove disastrous for current relief efforts and only worsen the plight of people already suffering because of the floods.