March 10, 2000

Amid the deluge of stories of tragedy, rescue and relief in flood-devastated Mozambique were reports that bad land and water management in the country and its neighbours exacerbated the disaster.

Poor river control and opening dam walls, it was suggested, swelled the 1.8m-high walls of water that raged down the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, sweeping away everything in their path and claiming thousands of lives.

But the suggestion is disputed by natural resource experts. Bruce Page, a University of Natal ecologist and riverine vegetation specialist, says: "Once that amount of water is on the landscape, you can't control it - it makes its own channels." The problem is poor understanding of where to live, lack of research into floods and inadequate disaster planning.

Flash flooding is a regular, natural occurrence in southern Africa. This year's cyclonic activity was worse than usual but not unprecedented. There are few dams along the rivers that carried floodwaters into Mozambique, and nothing could be done when dams overflowed.

Southern Mozambique, Mr Page says, comprises mostly sands washed down by major rivers over three million years. The Limpopo's mouth has shifted up and down the coast following floods, distributing soil over vast, fertile flood plains and creating lush riverine vegetation - without which there would be more flash flooding.

"The problem is that humans this century haven't planned for flooding on this scale. Because it hasn't happened in their lifetime, people think it won't again. Farming is best along the banks of rivers that also enable irrigation, so people go there. But it's unsafe."

Mr Page adds: "We haven't been doing necessary research into flood forecasting. We know that floods will happen again - that's definite. We must learn more about how they happen, where it is best for people to live and what to do when floods occur."

A coordinated regional disaster response prioritised at a Southern African Development Community meeting last week will make such activities a political imperative.

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