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Wednesday, 1 March, 2000, 15:32 GMT
Mozambique: Nature takes its toll
swimming cow
A cow swims for its life across the Limpopo
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Agriculture employs 83% of Mozambique's labour force, and they live in the most fertile areas - along the country's main rivers.

Two of these, the Save and the Limpopo, today spell death and destruction to people for whom they normally mean life.

Planning to move communities away from the river valleys, to prevent future disasters, would not work. In countries as poor as this, people have no choice but to live where they can make a living.

The poorest people usually live on the most marginalised and vulnerable land, because they have no choice. And this is a trend that is likely to intensify.

The United Nations estimates that by 2025 half the world's people will be living in areas at risk from storms and other extreme weather.

One of world's poorest countries

The floods are the first instalment of Mozambique's agony. For many of the survivors, the real reckoning is yet to come.

couple wading through floods
For many, survival is only the start
Mozambique, which joined the Commonwealth in 1995, is one of the world's poorest countries.

Of its population of about 16 million people, 90% live on less than US $1 a day, and life expectancy, at the best of times, is somewhere between 45 and 50 years.

It is believed to have the highest child mortality rate in the world, with 27% of its children dying before they reach their fifth birthday.

Yet it had begun to pull itself out of its abject poverty, and 1999 saw a distinct turn for the better.

Cathy Mahoney of the British Red Cross told BBC News Online: "Last year, for the first time since the end of the civil war in 1992, Mozambique did not have to ask for food aid from abroad."

"But that's now totally reversed. It will probably need aid for at least a year."

Signs of hope

However, there are signs of hope. Mozambique's Prime Minister, Pascoal Mocumbi, said this year's harvest was far from lost, with the country's most fertile areas, in the north, spared by the floods.

plane on runway
Aid arrives in Maputo, but much more is needed
And he said recovery was still possible in the south, if there was immediate replanting after the floods subsided. That would mean providing farmers with seeds, and also with tools, which are traditionally left in the fields overnight and will have been washed away.

But there is concern over the infrastructure that will emerge when the floods have gone. Aid experts expect most roads and bridges in the affected areas to be damaged or destroyed.

The government has already appealed for $30.5m to repair them, for a further $5.9m to get the railways back into shape, and for $4.5m for the electricity grid.

Another threat is the floodwaters' effect in dislodging landmines left over from the civil war, from known minefields and others yet to be discovered.

Cross-boundary effects

The world is waking up to the scale of the Mozambican horror. But perhaps it has still not fully grasped that this is a disaster for countries beyond Mozambique as well.

South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, even Swaziland, are all affected in some degree. And their attempts to cope with disaster sometimes inevitably affect their neighbours.

Zimbabwe, for example, has been releasing water from its Kariba dam at 3,000 cubic metres a second, and this flows straight down to Mozambique's largest dam at Cabora Bassa.

Nature is no respecter of the old colonial boundaries. What happens to anyone's environment can also affect our own.

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See also:

01 Mar 00 |  Africa
Million homeless in Mozambique
28 Feb 00 |  Africa
The floods: A regional disaster
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