Coping with Floods: Mozambique and Britain

By Viana, Natalia | Contemporary Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Coping with Floods: Mozambique and Britain

Viana, Natalia, Contemporary Review

MOZAMBIQUE is one of the world's poorest countries, the United Kingdom is one of the richest. Both are struggling to respond to a changing climate. Factory workers hurriedly evacuated after a local river burst its banks; firemen having to rescue a mother and child after their car got stuck in flood water and thousands of homes being put on flood alert. These were the scenes which greeted the start of the year in the United Kingdom following abnormally heavy rainfall. Meanwhile, Mozambique, in southern Africa, was witnessing evacuation efforts on a far greater scale. The region's rainy season had been relentless and four rivers were rising quickly and flooding the Zambezi basin in central Mozambique. As a result 54,000 people were being evacuating from their homes, taking refuge in temporary shelters and an estimated 20 people drowned. Both countries had barely recovered from more severe floods the previous year. The two countries are poles apart in terms of the world's resources but they are both struggling to adjust to the common challenge of climate-related disaster.

Mozambique has always suffered from floods. Its valleys are host to five large rivers which flow through several other countries. If it rains in Zambia, for instance, the river will become saturated further downstream. Matters are made worse by tropical cyclones that usually hit three to four times a year. When the floods hit in 2008, Mozambique was still dealing with tens of thousands of people in temporary shelters. As well as mass evacuations and the destruction of crops, a cholera outbreak had spread among flood-affected communities. However its preparations meant it was much better than might have been the case. The thing Mozambique has already come to understand is they will have to live with floods', says the British academic Joseph Hanlon and author of the book Mozambique & the Great Flood of 2000. 'After they learned that, the quality of the organisations got better and better, the monitoring got better and the communication got better'. In recent years the country has significantly reduced its death toll - from about 700 deaths in the floods of 2000 to 45 in 2006. Economic losses have also been significantly reduced.

The country's National Institute for Disaster Management understood that one of the main challenges was to convince people they were at risk. Many lives had been lost because people either failed to understand or ignored warnings to evacuate. 'They need to understand the danger and to be prepared to act in the worst case', says meteorologist Filipe Lucio, the former director of the country's National Institute of Meteorology. Mozambique relies heavily on international support, with 51 per cent of its income coming from foreign donors. It needs US$47 million to deal with flooding in 2008 - of which only US$8 million was available at the beginning of the year. But it is anxious to limit its dependence on international governments and aid agencies. During its 2008 floods it tried to develop a self-sufficient approach and the government refused to issue an international appeal. 'If we launch one, it will be because we have exhausted all our local possibilities', said Paulo Zucula, the director of the National Institute for Disaster Management.

One of the most successful measures adopted in 2008 was the formation of risk committees, groups of citizens along the main rivers which were trained to keep people informed about flood risks and to act as soon as a flood warning was issued. The forecasting now is quite good; you can warn people on the Zambezi river three days in advance so they have time to prepare', says Joe Hanlon. In 2007 flood simulations took place in the provinces of Nam-pula, Gaza and Sofala. Because of that, the response to the recent floods was far better than on previous occasions, according to Belarmino Chivambo of the Disaster Management Institute. The committees helped themselves and each other to evacuate people without waiting for government intervention. …

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