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UNICEF responds to humanitarian disaster in Mozambique

On 27 March 2019, men from Buzi load the food aid brought in by the World Food Program (WFP) helicopter onto a tractor. The helicopter landed on a dirt road outside of town and the tractor will transport the food aid into town.© UNICEF/UN0293263/DE WET


The worst tropical storm to hit southern Africa in at least 20 years has generated a massive humanitarian disaster in Mozambique that will require a concerted international effort to save lives and mitigate the suffering of those affected by the crisis.

Cyclone Idai slammed into the port of Beira, Mozambique on March 14. After devastating Mozambique, the cyclone moved across the region, wreaking havoc in the neighbouring countries of Malawi and Zimbabwe.

However, Mozambique took the brunt of the cyclone. Nearly 600 deaths have been confirmed and the death toll is sure to rise in the coming days; thousands of people are still missing three weeks after the storm made landfall.

According to UNICEF, Beira, home of Mozambique’s second largest port, has suffered major damage to its critical infrastructure and is enduring heavy flooding in urban areas.

With extensive damage to the country’s water and sanitation systems, a growing cholera outbreak is sure to push the death toll even higher.

How many people have been displaced by the cyclone in Mozambique?

“As of March 27, in Mozambique alone, some 1.85 million people are in dire need of assistance, including one million children,” Daniel Timme, chief of communications for UNICEF Mozambique, stated in an email.

Where are displaced women and children seeking shelter?

Describing the situation as critical, Timme said that UNICEF is observing “thousands of people congregating in informal, improvised camps.” And he said that the living conditions in the shelters are “very precarious,” because they lack proper water and sanitation, which “could lead to the spread of diseases.”

However, Timme added that “UNICEF and its partners are moving quickly to provide them with water, hygiene and sanitation supplies."

Disease, sexual abuse, & human trafficking

“The current living conditions – stagnant waters, lack of hygiene, decomposing bodies, overcrowding in temporary shelters – are breeding ground for waterborne and infectious diseases and can easily lead to outbreaks of diarrhoea, malaria and cholera to which children are especially vulnerable,” said Timme.

With many confirmed cases of cholera in Beira, he said that UNICEF is in “a race against time” to prevent the spread of disease.

“UNICEF is the lead organization for water, sanitation and nutrition, ensuring all humanitarian responses are coordinated across the disaster zone,” he stated.

“Safe drinking water is essential to prevent the spread of illness,” Timme explained. “Within one week of the cyclone, UNICEF, with support of the UK government, led the repairs to the water supply systems in Beira and is working to rehabilitate water systems in other parts of the disaster zone.”

In addition, UNICEF is helping to set up cholera treatment centers in strategic areas.

According to Timme, "UNICEF, with partners, is implementing a program to immunize 900,000 people against cholera in Mozambique.”

Similarly, the UNICEF staffer warns that “mosquitoes will breed well in all the water and malaria is also going to be a major threat.” In response, UNICEF is distributing mosquito nets to prevent the disease from spreading.

Are displaced women and children in Mozambique at risk of sexual abuse and/or human trafficking?

“Children separated from their parents and families are the most vulnerable and at risk of sexual abuse and/or human trafficking,” replied Timme.

“A number of unaccompanied children have been identified by UNICEF and are in family-based care or an alternative care, while working on reunifying them with their families.”

In addition, he said that “UNICEF will also work towards strengthening protection from sexual exploitation and abuse by establishing coordination structures to ensure crisis-affected populations have access to reporting mechanisms and assistance.”

Food insecurity

According to UNICEF, flood waters have flooded farmland and caused major crop damage.

“Damage to crops has devastated the country's agricultural production with nearly 50 per cent of Mozambique’s production destroyed for the year,” stated Timme. “The region has seen an increase in prices, which is why voucher-based assistance will be provided to families where relevant.”

UNICEF is working with its partners in Mozambique to meet the food and agricultural needs of the flood ravaged country.

“We shall continue to lead in the screening and treatment of children with severe acute malnutrition and we will scale up our procurement of ready-to-use therapeutic food and kits for both inpatient and outpatient nutrition rehabilitation,” Timme said.

“The next three months will be critical to answer basic humanitarian needs of people,” said UNICEF’s Timme.

The list of priorities includes preventing the spread of disease “by providing water, sanitation and hygiene supplies, including soap and buckets” while simultaneously “repairing damaged water pipelines and setting up temporary latrines, distributing water purification tablets and medicine.”

In addition, Timme said that “a cholera vaccination campaign is being deployed in the regions most affected.”

Child protection of is another UNICEF priority, setting up child friendly spaces and family reunification centres. “It is critical for children facing trauma and widespread devastation to receive urgent and immediate professional psychosocial care to safeguard their rights,” Timme said of UNICEF’s work.

UNICEF will also focus on ensuring that children resume their education in the aftermath of the natural disaster.

“UNICEF is distributing tents to allow people to move from schools being used as shelter,” Timme said. “This will allow children to return to classrooms, giving them a much-needed sense of routine and normalcy.”

In the long-term, Timme said that it will be important to “rebuild schools, and build them better so they are resilient to weather risks,” as well as re-establishing the health care system in the affected areas.

Economic support

With the loss of entire crop yields, some farmers will be in need of food aid and financial assistance.

“In three months from now, planting season will begin, but communities have lost their tools, their seeds, and lands might still be flooded,” Timme said. “They will need support from the international community.”

UNICEF is appealing for $(US) 136 million to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Mozambique. “We need more resources and money to ensure a long-term plan is built into our emergency response,” Timme said.

Geoffrey P. Johnston is an independent Canadian journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston

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