Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 21 January 2011
As South Africa declares a national disaster due to flooding, other countries in the region hold their breath while water levels continue to rise.
With dozens dead and damages exceeding $50 million across eight of its nine provinces, South Africa is experiencing its heaviest floods in years. The Orange River, which runs 2,300 kilometres from Lesotho east to the Atlantic Ocean at the Namibian-South African [border], has reached its highest level in decades.
“The floods are earlier than previous years,” says Maria Amakali, Namibia’s Director of Water Resource Management who sits on the Orange-Senqu River Commission. “Irrigation schemes on the border are flooded, lodges are under water and some small communities are flooded to the point they don’t have drinking water, because the water treatment plants are submerged.”
“The water in the Zambezi is much higher than is normal for this time of year,” Guido van Langenhove told IPS. “This morning we measured three metres at Katima Mulilo, normally it should be half that.” The Zambezi is considered to be flooding when the water level breaks through the 6-metre mark.
Van Langenhove, Director of Hydrology in Namibia’s Ministry of AgricultureM warns that floodwater from heavy December downpours in upstream Angola are gradually making their way down Southern Africa’s largest river, traversing six countries.
“The Zambezi usually reaches its peak around March or April, but there are signs that flooding will occur earlier, depending on the rain in the coming months.”
Flooding of the mighty Zambezi has caused havoc in the basin in the past, notably in 2000, 2001 and 2007.
Water authorities in the region have strengthened early warning systems to head off disasters that leave people like Hamaundu destitute.
“We get readings from six stations in the Zambezi and its tributaries, that allow us to predict the water levels two weeks in advance,” says Van Langenhove about the area where four countries share a common border along the Zambezi.
“In addition we get satellite images from NASA that allow us to monitor the rainfall and flooding situation.”
He is keeping a close eye on another part of Namibia, the Cuvelai Basin in the central north, which experienced severe floods in 2008 and 2009. An area inhabited by a million people – or half the country’s population – was inundated. Heavy damage occurred to crops and livestock, while many people drowned.
“Since then we have put up 18 measuring stations in the Oshanas (floodplains) that send us automatic messages on the water levels,” explains Van Langenhove.
This year the dreaded ‘Efundja’ (flood) from Angola has yet to come. “We are monitoring the situation by satellite, but so far the rains in that part of Angola have not developed as normal.”
Yet an absence of the annual flood is by no means a blessing for the arid area, the hydrologist said. “It brings fish and people depend on it to fill up their dams for the dry season.”
In Mozambique, where the Limpopo River reaches the Indian Ocean, officials are preparing for the flooding season. “We have some inundation in some areas,” says Sergio Sitoe of the Limpopo Water Course Commission. “We are not really experiencing floods as such, but if rain continues to fall heavily we will have floods.”
According to Sitoe, on Jan. 16 and 17 alone stations recorded 100 mm of rain. Some people living in the basin have started moving to safer ground after warnings that 7,000 people could be affected if the river reaches the expected two metres above alert levels.
“The impact of floods is always negative,” says Sitoe. “Especially for the communities living along the river and using the banks and the lower areas for agriculture. Crops are lost and hunger is on the increase. Communities depend on food aid by humanitarian organisations.”
Crops have already been submerged in parts of the Limpopo Basin.
Sitoe adds that teams from Mozambique’s Disaster Management Institution INGC are already on the ground to assist and warn communities. A special task force of the Limpopo Commission meets before and during the rainy season to discuss the exchange of hydrological information, while member states also put individual contingency plans in place.
But early systems are not always working the way they should. “The systems are not always reliable. Some HYCOS (Hydrological Cycle Observing Systems) stations are still working, but most of the time it is difficult to get the information when you need it,” says Sitoe, explaining that the problem is compounded by flaky internet connections.
By: Servaas van den Bosch