CHOKWE, MOZAMBIQUE — Mozambique’s government wants to permanently resettle people living in the flood-prone Limpopo river basin after a devastating flood swept through the area last month.
Prime Minister Alberto Vaquina is pushing local authorities to be firm with people who want to return home - saying the risk of future floods is too great. The government is offering people plots of land on higher ground if they agree to move. Close to 100 people died in the floods and more than 200,000 have been affected.
Thelma Zita’s home is just a few hundred meters from the banks of one of Africa’s mightiest rivers - the Limpopo.
In late January the river burst its banks, washing away everything she had. There was not time to escape.
"We just climbed onto roofs," she says. "We did not leave Guija because the water came in at night."
A week later, she gave birth to her daughter. Now, baby strapped to her back, she is cultivating what little land the slowly subsiding flood water relinquishes.
"We are just beginning to plant again," she says. "In some fields you can’t plant because there is still water and we have to wait." She notes resignedly that that is the way it goes and life continues.
The fertile valley is the source of much of the rice and vegetables grown in Mozambique.
A flood alert is still in place, and the end of the rainy season is still two months away. It is risky, but Zita and her neighbors say if they don’t plant, they will go hungry.
"Nothing gets here," she says. Trucks come full of food aid, but she says it is not for them and she does not know where is goes.
Adam Ridell, with a U.S.-based Christian aid agency called Samaritan’s Purse, is helping distribute food to the area. He explains why Zita and her neighbors might not be getting food aid.
“One reason why these people may not have received food is that they are not in these accommodation centers. We may not know they are around. It is easier if they are there. We bring the food there," he said.
Custodia Quive is one of the nearly 70,000 people who did escape the rising water. Now she is living in a massive tented camp, run by the government and international aid agencies.
"Everything went," she says. "I don’t have a house. I don’t have anything. Even my clothes washed away."
Now it is time to contemplate the future. The government is offering land on higher ground near the camp. It is about 29 kilometers away from the town of Chokwe, where she lived and worked before the flood.
“We want this land but we only hear talk." she said.
She says the government hasn’t given it out but she is ready to go to work there - even though it’s far and she will leave her family here.
Few men are to be found at the camp during the day. Many have already returned to the fields, or are protecting their homes and belongings in the flood zones from bandits.
Adam Ridell says the relocation process will be difficult but there seems little alternative.
“How do you relocate 200,000 people? When it floods every five years? They did a great thing with early warning systems and people knew the water was coming," he said. "Levies broke, the water came a lot faster than they thought. A lot of people even prepared for the floods but didn’t prepare enough because they didn’t think it would be that bad. And their houses are made of mud because that is what they have, so of course it is going to get washed way in a flood.”
Experts say Mozambique, home to nine major river systems and prone to seasonal cyclones, is especially vulnerable to climate change, increasing the risk of natural disasters in the future.
The government is considering building at least one other dam on the Limpopo river - but it’s a costly undertaking for what is still one of the world’s poorest countries.
In the meantime, they hope to move enough people to higher ground to minimize the disaster, next time.