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Extreme flooding causes grave danger

© UNICEF Namibia/2004/Rhodes
An aerial shot of the extremely flooded plains of the Caprivi Region, Namibia.

Katimo Mulilo, Caprivi Region, Namibia, Tuesday, 27 April - Namibian officials are caught in a desperate bid to try and save thousands of cattle from near-certain death as the flooded Zambezi River closes in on them, threatening an outbreak of cholera, dysentery and malaria in one of the country’s most populated areas.

Having successfully evacuated some 3,000 people, with the help of the Zimbabwean Defence force, Namibian authorities are now looking at inventive ways to rescue at least 15,000 cattle. Airlifting or herding the cattle by ‘mokoro’ or boat to dry land has become impossible since the Zambezi broke its banks in early April flooding a huge area of some 100 kilometres and transforming this mostly parched land into a swamp virtually overnight.

“If we don’t do something now – like getting pontoons from Zambia or somewhere to drive the cattle out to dry land – then the stench of the rotting cattle will become unbearable, and people will become seriously ill from the infected water,” said Ndeutapo Amagulu, deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

From the air it was a pathetic sight – herds of bug-eyed, panicked cattle, with only horns and snouts sticking out of the water, desperately seeking higher ground.

After seasons of drought, the rains bring no relief

Before the floods the region had been reeling from years of drought and erratic weather. Ironically, just before these floods – the worst since 1958 – the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Food Programme (WFP) had launched a joint emergency appeal to assist the Namibian Government during the drought.

These floods have delivered a major blow to humanitarian attempts to assist the population. Even as flooding began, government agencies had been delivering drought relief and food aid to communities. To date, however, there has been no response to UNICEF’s appeal and WFP has only received token support for food aid.

Namibia, with a population of 1.8 million, has a gap between the rich and the poor and already 640,000 people are in need of food aid. A recent United Nations mission to Namibia found that acute malnutrition in children under five is as high as 15 per cent in affected areas, indicating a nutritional emergency.

The floods have destroyed most of the maize crop and washed away newly planted seeds. Now if the cattle cannot be rescued an even greater threat is posed and thousands will remain on food aid. 

© UNICEF Namibia/2004/Crowe
A woman and her child seek shelter from the floods

Seeking shelter from the storms

The Namibians received early warning in March about the potential floods from the Zambians up river and acted quickly – they set up an emergency centre, the local chief put out word by radio and even cell phones were used to warn people to leave their homes and seek shelter.

Humanitarian organizations such as the International Red Cross (IRC) and UNICEF have moved in to provide tents for shelter; boats for mobile clinics, water purification tablets and insecticide treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

Large camps have been set up in the Kabbe constituency, Lusese being the biggest with 1,118 people accommodated. This quick response has clearly prevented loss of life, but two young girls have died in the past week – one was bitten by a snake and another drowned on her way home from school.

Dangers increase for families during floods

As far as the eye can see from a helicopter – with Zambia to the east, Angola west and Botswana to the south – the Zambezi has invaded the Caprivi Strip. The waters have been as deep as seven metres, and in some cases villagers were forced to climb on the roofs of their homes as crocodiles circled below.

“We could see the crocodiles from a distance and we all had to run to the helicopter,” said 30 year-old Grace Nchindo. Grace, her twins, and 19 other family members are now being accommodated with more than 1000 others in tents in Lusese camp, Kabbe district. “We don’t know what we’re going to do when the waters go down because we have lost all our maize and seeds.”

This week only thatched peaks of huts and faint watery circles of submerged cattle enclosures were all that was left of some villages. Island clusters of huts remained and a few villagers had stayed behind to look after property and cattle.

“The real threat may appear to have subsided but in fact this is the time when we really need to step up action,” said Khin Sandi Lwin, UNICEF’s representative in Windhoek.

“This is when incidents of malaria will start showing up and the full impact of water borne diseases like dysentery and cholera will be felt. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has already left these people weakened. Women and children in particular are very susceptible to other diseases right now,” she added.



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