Helping people recover from floods

In April, the archipelago nation of Comoros was lashed by its heaviest rains in decades, uprooting families and destroying the crops and incomes of its poorest people. At a donor conference last week, the country, backed by the UN and the South African government, made an appeal for just over US$19 million to help the country get back on its feet. 

“The amount of money needed [for the country’s nine-month recovery plan] is rather small compared to disasters elsewhere,” said Sivu Maqungo, chief director of the East Africa desk in the South African Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation, which organized the donor conference for Comoros in South Africa. It should not be a problem to raise the requested amount, he added.

The five-day downpour in April was nearly equivalent to the country’s annual rainfall, flooding three islands and affecting 9 percent of the country’s population of more than 750,000 people.

Douglas Casson Coutts, the UN resident coordinator for Comoros, was emphatic that Comorians “are not looking for hand-outs. They want the knowledge that will help them protect themselves from any such future shocks.”

He had been prompted to work on the appeal when five elderly mayors called on him soon after the floods, saying they wanted the know-how to never be taken by surprise again. The recovery plan will help set up a disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategy for the country.
 

''Comorians 'are not looking for hand-outs. They want the knowledge that will help them protect themselves from any such future shocks'''

The Comorians are no strangers to disaster; in 2005, the eruption of the Karthala volcano displaced between 180,000 to 250,000 people on the main island of Njazidja. Yet the country does not have a DRR plan in place. Moreover, the April floods destroyed the seismological surveillance equipment on Mount Karthala and damaged several meteorological stations, leaving the country even more vulnerable.

South Africa is going to help Comoros with technical skills to set up a DRR strategy, said Maqungo. The island country is also seeking support from the University of South Africa to set up a long-term planning capacity in Comoros.

Climate change and poverty

Storms on the islands have been getting more intense and frequent over the last decade, said Col Ismael Mogne Daho, the director general of Civil Security, an agency established last year to respond to disasters. He blamed increasing weather severity on the changing global climate.

Gary Eilerts, programme manager of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), said in a study published in 2011 that the Indian Ocean was rapidly warming, drawing all the moisture off the African continent and causing heavier downpours over the ocean and the islands in it - like the Comoros islands.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Comoros has few natural resources to support its rapidly growing population. Almost 80 percent of Comorians depend on agriculture, which accounts for 40 percent of the country’s GDP. Most families get by with the help of remittances from 150,000 Comorians living abroad, who sent about $12 million home in 2006.

Rural poor most affected

Most of the people affected by the floods in April are small-scale farmers, who depend on food and income from growing banana, cassava, sweet potato, coconut and rice. Some grow cash crops like cloves, ylang-ylang, vanilla and black pepper.

The affected farmers are in their lean season, and agriculture in Comoros is not geared to withstand shocks, explained Coutts. Comorian farmers are usually besieged by several factors that hold them back, such as lack of seeds and agricultural tools, poor storage facilities, poor water management and infrastructure, and lack of credit services.

Even before the April rains, most people in the country did not have enough to eat. Malnutrition among mothers and children under age five as the leading underlying cause of child mortality. Eleven districts out of 17 have a malnutrition rate of at least 10 percent, which, in the presence of aggravating factors such as destruction of crops, loss of livelihoods, income, affected health and water services, is considered by the World Health Organization to be a serious situation requiring nutritional support. 

The Early Recovery Plan seeks to create emergency employment schemes and micro-enterprises that target women in particular, restock of lost farm animals, and provide seeds and farming tools. The plan also aims to bring the World Food Programme to the islands, and to repair and rebuild water supply networks, schools, health facilities and houses.

Donors at the conference expressed some concerns about how the funds and programmes would be monitored. UN’s Coutts explained that part of the plan, drafted with support from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), was to build capacity in Comoros.

“With that, we think transparency and accountability will follow,” he said.

jk/rz