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Mozambique gets its message across

Disaster strikes Mozambique on a regular basis but the country's investment in communication has saved lives.

Leiza da Gloria Cumbane was sitting outside her grass-thatched hut with her small solar operated radio blaring out flood warning alerts. She was resettled here in the rural town of Chokwe after Mozambique's worst floods in 2000 and 2001. They killed 700 people and cost the economy half a billion dollars.

'That was the worst experience of my life. It was seven years ago, but the memories are still fresh, especially when I hear what is currently happening in central parts of the country,' said Cumbane staring at her son who lay on a reed mat, his bloated tummy showing the classic signs of malnutrition.

Mozambique's river basins flood on a regular basis, causing devastation. The country is the last stop for five rivers, including the vast Zambezi, which stretches 500 kilometres from the Cahora Bassa Hydroelectric dam on the border with Zimbabwe to the Indian Ocean.

On this visit, the nearby Limpopo River was rising again and threatening to flood the neighbouring districts of Magudi and Guija. Cumbane had heard Radio Mozambique's warnings, advising people living on the river banks to evacuate. She had earlier moved her house onto higher land but still needs to visit lower areas to tend to crops. 'We have already been moved from those dangerous areas,' she said.

'We have also been shown how to build protection dykes to prevent the flood waters devastating our fields and the crocodiles from snatching our children when they go to fetch water in the river. It was difficult at first to leave the lower areas but we had no option.'

Immediately following the floods in 2000 and 2001, the government and aid agencies began the daunting task of moving everyone from the most dangerous and vulnerable flood zones to resettlement areas. They also had to persuade defiant subsistence farmers to leave their fertile agricultural lands on the lower Limpopo Basin, one of the most risk-prone areas in Mozambique, for higher ground.

This year's floods were similarly dramatic in scale, displacing tens of thousands and claiming around 20 lives. There were further deaths following outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea in resettlement camps. However, compared with the floods of 2000 and 2001, better preparation meant fewer lives were lost.

Learning from experience

Luis Zaqueu, Communication Officer in the UN Resident Coordinator's Office in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, said aid agencies have assisted the government in preparing awareness-raising campaigns about droughts, cyclones and floods. 'Almost half of Mozambique's disaster-prone areas are now aware of the risks,' he said.

Planners have learned that people need incentives as well as warnings. Their strategy is to persuade residents in vulnerable areas to relocate by promising clean drinking water and food. 'We had to put something attractive in place first before driving them off those flood-prone regions. We built schools, roads, health units and made sure the new areas were protected with dykes. We involved the communities in the operations so that they could understand our mission,' said Paulo Zucula the director of Mozambique's National Institute for Disaster Management, (INGC).

When researchers at Columbia University in the US analysed Mozambique's response to the floods of 2000, they said 'internal flood preparedness' was good but pointed out shortcomings in communicating flood warnings. 'The links between the media and the weather services were weak or non-existent,' they wrote in a 2007 study, Climate risk management in Africa: Learning from practice.

The study noted a lack of media coverage during December 1999 and January 2000 before the floods hit, saying 'people did not fully understand the risks; they did not leave their homes and died or had to be rescued'.

Since then, there have been improvements. The UN Development Programme's Human Development Report 2007 and 2008 says Mozambique's policymakers woke up to the importance of the mass media, especially radio, in disaster preparedness. The local language network of Radio Mozambique now provides regular updates on climate risks, relaying information from the National Institute of Meteorology.

Staying vigilant

Decent preparations involve long-term planning and constant vigilance. The government is encouraging farmers to rebuild their homes on higher ground and to use the low-lying areas solely for agricultural purposes.

'It is our responsibility to put in place the necessary infrastructure. We have done a lot by telling the people that they should not live on the lower river banks. They can go there to tend their farms but they should not risk the fury of the floods and the crocodiles. We have shifted from constructing makeshift accommodation centres to establishing resettlement areas, where communities are encouraged to start new lives and build proper homes,' said Zucula.

'We have learnt a great deal over the past seven years. The challenge now is to prevent the rescued flood victims from returning before the waters have subsided, for their goats and chickens, which they treasure as their wealth,' he added.

Aid agency Mozambique Red Cross stays on flood-alert throughout the year and awareness-raising campaigns continue even during the dry season. 'We keep telling people about the risk of disasters and the possibility of outbreaks of diseases such as malaria and cholera. We are constantly on the ground distributing water chlorination products and are involved in childcare programmes and simulating rescue operations,' its programme director Eunice Mucache said.

'There's a constant drive to get the message across, which has worked wonders in southern Mozambique in the past few years. We feel we are now prepared for any eventuality.' 

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