Namibia in flood after heaviest rain in 120 years

Namibia has declared its second national flood emergency in three years, following extensive flooding in six of the country’s northern regions. The heaviest rains in 120 years of recorded weather history have displaced about 30 000 people, inundated 22 health clinics and closed down 263 schools, with more than 114 000 schoolchildren affected.

President Hifikepunye Pohamba declared an emergency last week in a move to assist the relocation of flood-afflicted people along the Angolan and Zambian borders. The damage was expected to far exceed the 2009 repair bill of R85-million, with the waters reported still to be rising in central northern Namibia, where heavy rains continued to fall in the catchment areas of the southern Angolan Cunene and Cuando Cubango provinces.

The worst-hit Namibian areas are the north-central Oshona, Ohangwena and Omusati regions, home to roughly a third of the estimated 2,1-million Namibians and situated in the Cuvelai Basin, a shallow floodplain through which the overflow from southern Angola spills into the Etosha Pans in an annual flood known as the efundja.

Oshakati, the commercial capital of the former Owamboland, has been hardest hit, with major businesses and shacks flooded. The town was cut off from the outside world for a day after the road leading to Ondongwa was flooded.

In a season normally considered a time of plenty—the efundja is named after the millions of little fish that hatch in the oshonas or shallow pans during flooding—the floodwaters originating from southern Angola are expected to cause major food shortages as sorghum fields have disappeared under the water and livestock have drowned.

Pohamba said he expected harvests to plummet as a result of the floods, leading to an increasing number of food-vulnerable people in the coming months. With roads and bridges washed away, the effort thus far has been to move food to hundreds of small communities cut off from the outside world using a limited amount of 4x4 trucks.

Unwelcome guest
The efundja also brought another unwelcome visitor: with the waters slow to drain, health experts expect malaria to increase sharply. The current death toll is 62 from drowning.

With those clinics not flooded mostly reachable only by 4x4 vehicles, concern is also rising about the effect on many HIV-positive flood victims. Close to 13% of adult Namibians and 17,8% of pregnant women are infected and many of them will not be able to access life-saving drugs, the United Nations Children’s Fund has warned.

The fast-rising Zambezi river, also fed by copious rain over central and southeastern Angola, continues to threaten the flood-prone Caprivi Strip in Namibia’s extreme east. In 2009 the Zambezi jumped its southern banks and cut all traffic with Botswana, dealing the area’s tourism industry a costly blow. An early-warning system set up along the Zambezi and its catchment areas by Namibia’s department of water affairs this year prevented worse damage, but state hydrologist Guido van Langehoven cautioned that yet another flood wave was to be expected. “It is not over yet,” he warned.

The copious rains that started in early January have so far led to major flooding of each of Namibia’s four perennial rivers. Lodges have been washed away along the Orange River on the southern border, as well as the Cunene River in the northwest and the Kavango and Zambezi on the northeastern border.

A 35-member team of disaster relief officials from the United Nations’s Coordinating Office of Humanitarian Affairs, accompanied by the prime minister’s Emergency Management Unit, conducted an assessment of the six northern regions. “Our main concern is to ensure that families have access to basic health services, to safe drinking water and an ability to maintain basic levels of hygiene,” said Unicef’s Namibian representative, Ian McLeod
Grants from the UN Central Emergency Fund were to be made available this week and the United States has also chipped in with a $50 000 grant. But with the current weather pattern expected to prevail until the end of April, Namibia will need many more drops in its aid bucket.

Almost everywhere else the country, the unusually heavy rains have caused major damage in the past three months. Major roads have been washed away and rail links closed because of landslides, while the normally excellent road infrastructure, a major economic selling point, has deteriorated markedly.

Even the fisheries industry has been affected, though it is separated from the flooded areas by the Namib Desert. The Kuiseb River broke through to the Atlantic Ocean in the biggest recorded flood since 1958, washing away the water-pumping infrastructure that supplies Walvis Bay’s fish factories.

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