Preparedness pays off in Mozambique

Hanlon, Joseph and Christie, Frances (2002). Preparedness pays off in Mozambique. In: ed. World Disasters Report 2002. Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.



The response to 2000’s floods in Mozambique – the worst for over a century – was a great success. Media headlines celebrated the helicopter rescue of a mother who gave birth while sheltering in a tree. Less reported were the 45,000 lives saved, mostly by regional rather than international rescuers.

A year later, more floods hit Mozambique. Local boat teams rescued over 7,000 survivors. In each year, for every person who died, over 60 were saved. Despite being one of the world’s poorest countries, Mozambique was better prepared than many had feared. And, although international help was crucial, it succeeded because agencies let Mozambicans lead. So how did disaster preparedness help save lives?

Flood plains provide fertile farmland. Most farmers want to work on it and live near it. So people will have to continue living with floods. That means prediction, early warning and evacuation systems are essential, as well as community awareness-raising to ensure that these systems work in practice.

Long-term weather prediction remains an inexact art. Short-term flood warnings can be given using rainfall and river-level monitoring. In March 2000, there was advance warning of flood crests. Some Mozambicans, however, ignored the warnings, fearing that possessions left behind could be stolen. Many of the 700 who died in 2000 were at home tending animals.

To ensure people react to warnings, all the links in the chain, from high-tech meteorology to low-tech warning and evacuation, must be maintained. Communities at risk must trust those delivering the warnings. After 2000’s floods, Mozambique’s President Chissano said that “warnings must be clear and simple”. He suggested using primary schoolteachers to watch rivers and issue warnings to their communities. The government is also considering legal powers which could force people to leave.

When meteorologists gave advance warning of unusually heavy rains, the Mozambique Red Cross (CVM) immediately began retraining volunteers. The government’s disaster management agency (INGC) sent teams to prepare people in vulnerable areas, and ran a major simulation exercise in flood relief, involving the police, CVM, local flying clubs, fire brigades and scouts. The ministry of health delivered medicines to provincial clinics a month early. And officials renewed contacts with the South African air force, which had helped in previous emergencies. Wartime experiences in the 1980s had strengthened Mozambique’s capacity to cope with crisis.

Traditionally, agencies stockpile relief supplies. But Mozambique had bitter experience of emergency reserves being stolen or sold. Moreover, the gap between major disasters may be a decade; maintaining stocks in good condition for that long is almost impossible under Mozambique’s climatic and economic conditions. One alternative to aid stockpiles is to establish contracts or retainers, for example with local petrol stations and boat owners, to provide (for a fee) essential supplies during bad flood seasons.

A key lesson from both disasters is that relief coordination worked best when Mozambicans led or fully participated in the response. In 2000, before international help arrived, local health workers and the CVM set up emergency health posts. Local government officials organized resettlement centres, coordinating distribution of tents and food, and construction of latrines and water tanks.

As the floods worsened and hundreds of foreign aid agencies poured in, Foreign Minister Simão personally coordinated the relief effort. The United Nations disaster assessment team worked within INGC’s offices. And the government chaired daily meetings to ensure aid coordination. The effect was spectacular. Adequate water and sanitation eliminated cholera; health staff controlled malaria; enough food meant there was little hunger. Overall, the death rate of people displaced by 2000’s floods was lower than if they’d stayed at home. In 2001, coordination was weaker, partly because the floods were further from the capital, where INGC’s resources were weaker. Providing the INGC with well-trained and resourced staff nationwide is therefore a priority. Where it isn’t practical to employ full-time relief staff, existing provincial officials could be given emergency responsibilities, additional training and extra pay when, for example, the president declares a state of emergency.

At community level, the CVM showed that investment in volunteers pays off. During 2001’s floods, volunteers trained in the drought of 1992-93 put their training to good use. Volunteers are trained in how to erect tents, organize a camp, register displaced people, assess needs, chlorinate water, build latrines and carry out first aid and boat rescues. Such broad-based training can be applied to a range of different disasters.

Structural mitigation measures are also important. During 2000, road embankments trapped water and prolonged floods in the Limpopo valley. Now, more gaps and bridges are being built into the embankments to allow floodwaters to pass underneath. Well-constructed clinics survived the floods with little damage, suggesting that protecting vital infrastructure pays off. Making a flood-proof community strong-house, in which to store valuable possessions, would encourage more people to evacuate.

There is substantial donor rhetoric about improving flood early warning, but donors proved reluctant to pay for it. Of the money Mozambique requested to replace river and rain gauges destroyed by 2000’s floods, donors promised just 15 per cent. Yet in May 2000, donors pledged US$ 470 million for reconstruction. Meanwhile, essential repairs to dykes before the next rainy season were impossible due to the slow release of donor funds. Greater donor flexibility in using reconstruction money to improve preparedness is needed. Operating an early warning system needs money to pay and train flood monitors, and to provide coordinators with bicycles, radio batteries and mobile phones. Not large amounts of money, but it would mean an increase in government spending. However, Mozambique’s World Bank-led poverty reduction strategy paper (PRSP) calls for cuts in government spending. Mozambique has reluctantly decided to invest more in health while cutting short-term education spending. Under such severe limits, investment in disaster risk reduction has lost out. The PRSP has a section on “Reducing vulnerability to natural disaster” – but no money is allocated for this. In conclusion, several compelling lessons emerge from two years of record floods: Early warning needs trust. Predicting bad weather is only half the battle. Mozambicans must trust the warnings before they will move. Involving community leaders in the early warning chain will help. Evacuate quicker. Many left it too late. Building community strong-houses and cattle pens, to secure possessions and animals before the flood, could save lives. Marking previous flood levels, evacuation routes and safe havens would also help. Agency preparedness pays off. Flood simulation exercises ensured that emergency services had experience working together. Pre-positioning essential relief supplies paid off. Coordination works when Mozambicans lead. Building the government’s capacity to coordinate disaster relief at all levels is a key priority. Africans rescued Africans. In total, 53,000 Mozambicans were saved from drowning. Two-thirds were rescued by Mozambique’s own military and Red Cross. International relief was crucial, but only after the rescue phase. Training volunteers works. Investment in training local people pays off. They will be there for the next disaster, while many international relief staff will not. Gap between donor rhetoric and reality. Donors mouth the language of disaster preparedness, but their words are not matched by the money needed to make risk reduction a reality. [math mode missing closing $]

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