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Worst Floods in Nearly 50 Years Hit Namibia, Neighboring Countries

  • Douglas Mpuga

Parts of southern and southwestern Africa are seeing the worst flooding in about 50 years. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected and are in desperate need of emergency supplies.

One of the worst affected countries is Namibia. Matthew Cochrane of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies spoke to VOA from one of the many flooded towns in Namibia.

"I'm in a little town called Schuckmansberg, which is normally on the Namibian side of the Zambezi River in the Caprivi Strip, which is up in the northeast. But now the only way to access this town is to drive across the border in Zambia, drive along the Zambia side of the river and then catch a boat up for about half an hour to reach this island. It's now totally surrounded by water," he says.

Cochrane described the flooding in and around Schukuninsberg: "The flooding here is I think universally accepted to be the worst since 1958. And it's perhaps even rivaling that. And what that means is we're seeing a lot of communities who've been displaced, forced to flee from their villages, who've never actually been affected by floods before. To that end they were totally unprepared to evacuate themselves in a timely way."

The flood has changed the landscape.

"We're seeing a lot of islands now that have appeared in the Zambezi, like the one I'm standing on right now," Cochrane said. "Formerly towns, formerly quite easily accessible by roads from the Namibian side of the river and now they're just totally cut off."

Small, informal settlements have been set up on these islands, which may be only a meter above the flood waters.

Cochrane said, "It's fairly clear there's that [there are] nowhere near enough tents. There's nowhere near enough of anything really at this stage. There's been a very slow response to the disaster in this part of the country brought about largely by the huge logistical problems that have come with the huge amount of water."

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies spokesman says that those in the flood zone face many different risks.

"The risks of waterborne diseases – cholera, other diarrheal diseases. This is also a malarial area and when you have a huge amount of slow moving or even still water that increases the risk dramatically. So mosquito nets are a huge priority for aid organizations, as are water purification tablets," he said.

But there are other dangers lurking in the flood waters.

Cochrane said, "You also hear probably the more remarkable dangers that people are facing. As the water encroaches, the space for people lessens, but the space for animals, like crocodiles and hippos increases, and snakes as well."

Deaths caused by animals have been reported.

"Yesterday, I was talking to a man…and he was explaining to me a young boy was taken by a crocodile when he was playing in the rising waters around his village. And further downstream, a man was mauled to death by a hippo in his house. His house is normally nowhere near the river, not even within 10 or 15 kilometers. But there's so much water now that the habitat of these animals is increasing and bringing with that increased risk," he said.

Most of the Red Cross supplies of shelters, mosquito nets and water purification sachets that had been stored in Caprivi have already been distributed, according to Cochrane. "The focus now, sadly, has to be on providing emergency relief for communities who've resettled to higher ground. And that is beginning to happen," said Cochrane.

But there's a shortage of boats and no helicopters are currently available.

"In the longer term, or even in the median term, there are real concerns here about food. This year's crop was expected to be a bumper crop, but the local Red Cross here is estimating that 70 or 80 percent of [it] has now been destroyed by the flood waters. So, there's real concern in the coming months that that food will need to be replaced," Cochrane said.

The heavy rains that triggered the floods actually arrived near the end of the normal rainy season. Cochrane says that many had hoped the region would be spared the floods this year. Flooding typically occurs in December and January.

"It's certainly come and it's come a bit late, but it's quite severe," said Cochrane. Local government authorities believe the Zambezi River has not yet peaked.

"There's still a lot of water from Angola, for example, that could very well find its way into this flood basin. The Zambezi here is already almost at eight meters, which is extraordinarily high for this part of Namibia," he said.

Another hard hit country is Zambia. The floods a result from continuous rainfall in recent weeks and some areas have been cut off from the capital, Lusaka, after inter-link bridges were washed away.

VOA reporter Sanday Chongo Kabange, in Lusaka says that the situation might get to a point where the government declares some places as disaster areas.

"In 2007, 29 people were killed in the floods that hit the southern parts of the country, which are a drought-prone area", he says. "And now the situation in that area is very wet, including the western part of Zambia that borders Angola and areas bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique," he said.

Asked how many people in Zambia are affected, Kabange said, "We have no official figures, but it is estimated people affected are in thousands. Some parts of the provinces have been cut off from the rest of the country. They cannot access medical help. They cannot access food aid from the capital city."

He explains that most of the good and services to the affected rural areas come from the capital. There are concerns about possible outbreaks of diseases like cholera if the situation is not addressed soon.

"The situation…is the same situation in Namibia, part of Zimbabwe and part of Mozambique." He adds that there has been heavy rain for most of the last two weeks in all these areas and there has been a lot of damage to crops, livestock and infrastructure, like roads," he said. "This is where we have one of the biggest trans-boundary rivers, the Zambezi, and it's shared by all these countries."

Kabange says the Zambian government is trying to learn which areas are most vulnerable and need immediate relief assistance, especially food relief and emergency shelters.

After this assessment that the government will decide whether to declare these areas disaster zones in order to attract international aid.