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Cannot live with the river, cannot live without it

Children bathe at the edge of a flooded road in the town of Mopeia, Zambezia province.
Thousands have been displaced by flooding throughout Southern Africa (Emily Witt/IRIN)

The people who live along the Zambezi River in central Mozambique know that every few years a flood is inevitable. They might lose everything, but the fertile soil of the flood plain, fish to add to their pots, and tradition keeps them returning to the lowlands each spring to plant their crops.

This year, as the Mozambican government rescues boatloads of farmers, many from the same communities that were washed out last year, some residents of the river basin are beginning to question whether that tradition is sustainable. The Zambezi has spilled its banks three times in seven years, creating havoc and claiming lives.

"This year was too much," said Felix Bernardo, a farmer from the flooded village of Muriwa, who was resting in the shade of a tree in the town of Mopeia, Zambezi Province, after disembarking from a rescue boat. "There's no food left. People are tired of this now."

Bernardo and about twenty of his neighbours waited in the oppressive mid-afternoon heat to depart for the nearby resettlement centre of Zona Verde. They carried with them all their belongings: pots and pans, a string of dried fish, a few mangos, and rolled up mats. They said their food reserves were gone.

When an aid worker suggested life would now be hand-to-mouth, the group became agitated. "Hand to mouth is what we're doing there!" said Adelia Ernesto, also from Muriwa, who arrived in the same rescue boat with a baby tied to her back. "Here, even if we are farming, there won't be any food."

In Mopeia many people in the resettlement centres shared Ernesto's belief that the land above the floodplain was not fertile enough to feed large families. "Here there is a place for us to stay, but the land does not give much," said Inês de Luis, who was relocated from her flooded town of Malulu to the 24 de Julho Resettlement Centre the week before. "We could stay here but the food doesn't [grow], so we go to the low areas."


Photo: BBC
Rainfall in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi has worsened flooding in Mozambique

Don't go home

The 2,574 km-long Zambezi, Africa's fourth largest river, flows through Zambia, Angola, along the borders of Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, to Mozambique, where it spills into the Indian Ocean

After the floods in 2007, which claimed dozens of lives, the Mozambican government strongly encouraged farmers to rebuild their houses on higher ground and to sow back-up crops if they were going to plant in the floodplain. "Last year we counselled people to cultivate two plots of land," said Abrista Mujuarte, district administrator of Mopeia district. "There are some communities where each family made two farms."

But people in the Zona Verde resettlement camp said there simply was not enough manpower to cultivate two plots of land, even in communities unaffected by this season's flooding. They claimed male family members in the camp made bricks during the day in exchange for donated food, and women cultivated land near the river in the hope of a bigger harvest.

Despite the brick-making activity, people in the Zona Verde centre live in everything from thatch houses to last year's tattered tents. Dozens of young volunteers from the capital, Maputo, said there was not enough cement to build the promised houses they had come to construct for the displaced.

This year's flooding, which has displaced more than 57,000 people, came early and took some non-governmental relief agencies by surprise. As part of a recovery plan for last year's flood victims, Save the Children UK organised two local agricultural fairs in Mopeia district in early November 2007.

The development agency presented families with vouchers worth approximately US$16 and invited local seed and tool merchants to sell their wares. The Mozambican government organised similar fairs in other parts of the district. Unfortunately, the crops grown with those seeds have been lost again. "Everything we received at the fair in Muriwa, all of those things were lost in the water," said Inês de Luis.


Photo: Emily Witt/IRIN
Residents of the Zona Verde centre in Mopeia District, first displaced in 2007

"It's sad," echoed Judite Waera, Save the Children programme officer in Mopeia. "It's a natural phenomenon but it's an expenditure we made. From now on it will be necessary to foresee this; we have now learned this lesson."

Rethinking strategies

Aid workers, the government and residents are now asking themselves how to prevent the loss of crops and mass evacuations when the Zambezi River floods again. Land distribution, agricultural support and flood control measures such as dikes have all been offered as possibilities. "We can't encourage people to move to higher ground if you don't offer an economic alternative," said Chris McIvor, country director for Save the Children UK.

He said his organisation would extend a grant programme benefiting orphans and vulnerable children to include victims of the floods. The scheme invites community members to make business proposals in activities such as fishing, carpentry or craft-making; selected projects are given cash grants of up to US$1,200.

By stimulating livelihoods beyond crop income, McIvor hopes that the whims of the river will no longer leave people without any source of income. "That's a model that should be followed by the government and other organisations,” he said. “If people are going to stay in safe zones they need those kind of economic incentives."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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