Air Date: Week of March 24, 2000
Host Steve Curwood speaks with Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, about the devastating floods in the southern African country of Mozambique.
CURWOOD: In southern Africa, the rains continue to fall, drenching areas that still haven't recovered from the destruction left by a series of devastating storms over the last few weeks. Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and South Africa all have been hit hard, but Mozambique has borne the brunt of the flooding. More than a million people are crowded into what amount to refugee camps, waiting for a chance to assess the damage to their inundated homes, schools, and businesses. The storms have also taken a tremendous toll on the country's infrastructure, wiping out roads, railroads, and telephone lines. Raymond Offenheiser, president of the aid and development organization Oxfam America, was in Mozambique when the floods first hit. He says the region was ill-prepared for a radical change in the weather.
OFFENHEISER: Mozambique is an arid country for the most part, and actually, Oxfam, which has been there for much of the last 20 years, has funded many projects that have been dealing with the issue of trying to provide water supply for rural agricultural production. Normally what you would find in a region like this are alternating seasons of dryness and wetness. What's proven to be the extreme here is that we're getting in excess of what would be one or two years' worth of rain in a period of two weeks. And indeed, in the case of Mozambique and Zimbabwe and so forth, the rains are still coming down, in spite of the fact that the rivers have gone down a bit. So they may rise again in certain areas and continue this problem.
CURWOOD: I have to say that these kind of conditions are what a number of scientists have predicted in connection with climate change -- with global climate change, global warming -- although they say you can't pick one event and say this is a function of that. And yet, one has to wonder. What do you think?
OFFENHEISER: Well, the apocalyptic sort of scale of this particular emergency leads one almost instantly to think that something extraordinary is going on here. The initial flooding, one could say, was based on a rain storm that swept through southern African and poured more than the normal levels of water onto that countryside. But then, a first cyclone hit, raising the water levels even further. Then a second cyclone hit. And the rains have continued even to today, so we're actually almost a month and a half into this period of erratic rainfall. The level and scale of these current events are such that they really raise the question as to whether something more systemic is going on in the broader sort of climactic system.
CURWOOD: Tell me what this looked like, this flooding.
OFFENHEISER: Basically, what one saw in the capital city were streets washed out. You saw people sort of up on the pavement, who were basically trying to stay out of washed-out squatter settlements. When one went 20 miles or so north of the city into the rural areas, one found that the roads simply ended where they had been washed away, and you looked out at a sort of vast sea of water. It was actually 100 miles inland from the ocean, and was covering large areas of banana plantations or peanut fields. And the populations that would normally be working in those fields were on high ground, basically with whatever possessions they could have taken out of their homes. In one case I was in a refugee camp in which a family had actually settled down on the side of a large warehouse with what few possessions they had, and one of the things they'd chosen to take from their house were books. And they literally had about ten books that were soaking wet that were on their backs open with their spines to the sun, drying. And I just thought that was a rather, sort of profound sort of symbol of what decisions people had to make about what they chose to save or not save as the waters rose.
CURWOOD: Mozambique struggled for many years. First there were hostilities with the Portuguese that had it as a colony, and then there was a lengthy civil war. And really, that civil war has just been over for the past few years. What does this disaster mean for this country that had started to get back on its feet economically, and was actually starting to look pretty good?
OFFENHEISER: It presents it with an extraordinary challenge. As you said, I mean this is a country that was undergoing a civil war for much of the last -- for up to about 20 or 30 years -- and it was basically undergoing a process of democratic transition. Only last year had democratic elections, elected a new president, or elected a president, and had been undergoing a tremendous amount of economic reform activity. So there was a great deal of optimism in the country about what was happening, and there was a great deal of optimism in the international community about the potential for Mozambique as a star performer in Africa. The tragedy, I think, in this emergency is that it undermines a lot of that potential by destroying so much of the country's social as well as physical infrastructure. So it basically will mean that, presuming that Mozambique can secure the funding to rebuild that infrastructure, it will probably be set back by at least five to ten years as it tries to rebuild an infrastructure that it already had in place.
CURWOOD: What do you think is going to happen now, and what responsibility do people like us in the affluent countries have here? What should we do in terms of aid to the people of Mozambique?
OFFENHEISER: I think one of the important lessons from these kinds of emergencies for the public in general is to actually think beyond the pictures in the New York Times that show the immediate tragedy, and actually think more seriously about the long-term development needs of these countries, and particularly about the reconstruction costs that obviously Mozambique is going to face. We've learned from the major cyclone in Central America last year, Hurricane Mitch, that the short-term assistance is valuable for basically providing relief to people in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane or a cyclone. But in fact, for a country really to get back on its feet, it needs more substantial aid to help with the rebuilding of that infrastructure. One of the major elements of that, we're finding particularly in Africa, can be debt relief. Over the last year or so, there's been a consensus in the international community that donors should pull together and attempt to enable African nations to get out of the debt trap, so that that revenue can go into schools, can go into health clinics, can go into environmental improvements that might even contribute to mitigating the impacts of these kinds of emergencies.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with me today. Raymond Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America, and he was in Mozambique when the floods first struck. Thank you, sir.
OFFENHEISER: Pleasure to be here.
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