Maputo - overcrowded, underfunded

Maputo, Mozambique's capital, is bursting at the seams, setting the new city council an enormous challenge providing even basic facilities to long-suffering residents.

Maputo is "overloaded with people", Helder Ossemane, head of communications at the council told IRIN. "I know people complain - we have major problems including the rubbish, roads, and poor drainage."

Trying to persuade people to move back to the countryside is not the solution. "To move back to the rural areas, to do what? That needs to be part of a national plan. What we [at the City Council] plan to do to is to expand, reorganise and improve the infrastructure of Maputo city," remarked Ossemane.

Carlos Moreira, a 27-year-old graduate, has a long list of gripes about the city he lives in.

"First, my block of flats [owned by the state body, APIE] is overcrowded and not maintained. The flats should accommodate about two to three people, but like many apartment blocks in the city, there are about six to eight people squashed up in each. There are often no lights in the corridor, the building is dirty and needs painting," he complained.

The litany continued: "We have a serious problem of rubbish collection in the whole city. There is even rubbish in the posh areas, where the embassies are. Poor sanitation practices are affecting our health. The markets don't have public latrines, people are urinating on our trees, the roads are bad, and the traffic lights don't work for long periods at a time, there is a shortage of public transport, and crime is too much."

Nobody knows exactly how many people live in Maputo, but the most common estimate is over 1.5 million. The problem is that the city was designed for far fewer.

Before independence in 1975, Maputo was known as Lorenço Marques and was a holiday resort for the region's white elite, who came to stroll down its wide boulevards, sip drinks at fashionable pavement cafes and sun themselves on the Indian Ocean beachfront.

That lifestyle was not for the majority of Mozambicans. Only the 250,000 Portuguese colonial settlers and a tiny class of "assimilados" - indigenous Mozambicans who were regarded as culturally Portuguese - were allowed to inhabit the city.

After independence, over 90 percent of the Portuguese left, and Mozambicans moved into claim Maputo. But the largest influx was as a result of the 16-year civil war between the FRELIMO government and RENAMO rebels, who terrorised the rural population.

Uprooted and desperate, most people settled "in the wrong places" said environmentalist Eduardo Langa. "They built precarious makeshift homes out of anything, including corrugated iron, bricks, and reed. There was no planning."

It was hoped that after the peace accord in 1992, most of the displaced would return to their villages. But although life in the city was hard - around 54 percent of Maputo residents live below the poverty line - in the rural areas it was harder still.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, 178 babies out of every 1,000 live births die before their first birthday in the rural areas, compared to 89 out of every 1,000 live births in Maputo. Around 41 percent of children are chronically malnourished in the countryside - double the rate in the capital.

Outside the main cities, education is a problem as well. Mario Manhique, a 61-year-old security guard, says that although he struggles to support his family of eight in Maputo, he cannot return to his home in the rural areas because he wants his children to finish school.

His family used to farm in the Manhica district of Maputo province, but there was no school that offered 7th grade and above. "I have three children in school and I want them to continue their education."

Apart from the lack of rural infrastructure, even the weather has played its part in persuading people to leave the village and head for the cities.

"The climate was more reliable before - the farmers could predict the weather, and adapt their agricultural practices. These days, with climate changes, it is more difficult," noted Langa.

The southern region of Mozambique experienced its worst floods in February 2000, which killed 750 people, displaced over 200,000 and left swathes of farmland under water. This was followed the next year by severe drought in five out of 11 provinces.

But while a steady flow of rural poor find their way to Maputo, at the other end of the scale, so has investment money. New developments are fast transforming the city, as restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and huge mansions spring up, especially along the seafront.

The city council is under the leadership of Eneas Comiche, a former finance minister. His administration, a year into its five-year mandate, has made some progress in improving the lives of residents, most visibly in reducing the rubbish that clogged the capital, and filling potholes - the bane of every road user.

A large number of the state-owned apartment blocks have been sold cheaply to Mozambicans, and there has been a slight improvement in maintenance. But that does not yet mean people don't carry water and charcoal for cooking up unlit staircases because of seized water pumps, electricity cuts and rusted elevators.

However, the city council has some major development programmes it aims to get off the ground, including a three-year US $20 million project to rehabilitate roads and drains in the city, although the programme is likely to cost far more than that. A 2001 study showed that to revamp just the main roads alone would cost $42 million.

See Special Report on Southern African cities in transition