In Mozambique, just a year ago, three separate floods displaced nearly half a million people in just three weeks - including 45 000 who had to be rescued from certain death.

The story of the long rains - and the waves of water which washed down the rivers from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe into Mozambique - was well documented by the media, with the report and photographs of baby Rosita's birth in a tree galvanising the international community into action.

When the floods receded, the Prime Minister of Mozambique, Dr Pascoal Mocumbi, challenged writers, photographers and film makers to document the worst floods in 150 years, not only as an historical record for the country but to study what happened and draw lessons for the future.

Joseph Hanlon, a research fellow at Britain's Open University at Milton Keynes who lived in Mozambique for five years, accepted the challenge, and with journalist Frances Christie, has produced a scholarly work entitled, Mozambique and the Great Flood of 2000. It outlines in meticulous detail what happened.

It draws some valid conclusions on "lessons learned" which everyone involved in emergency relief would be well advised to note.

Hanlon, who was in Johannesburg last week, believes South Africa's neighbour never got the credit it deserved for managing the unprecedented flooding as efficiently as it did.

"The logistics of coping with the rising waters was enormous. And though aircraft and military personnel from various countries, particularly South Africa, joined the emergency relief operations, Mozambique itself rescued nearly half the number."

As the rains continued, however, and one wave of water followed another, help was urgently needed, not only to rescue people stuck on roof tops and in trees, but to distribute vast quantities of food and medicine.

Boats, Hanlon says, were often much more appropriate for rescuing people and for getting relief supplies to isolated groups. These had to deal with strong currents, submerged trees and floating debris. Britain, the Netherlands and Florida, USA, sent boats and teams to help.

Foreign aircraft, including military planes and helicopters, came from South Africa, France, Malawi, Belgium, Britain, Germany, the USA, Spain, Portugal, Lesotho, Libya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, to distribute cargoes of relief aid.

Thousands of foreigners came to help with relief work. Some simply drove over the border from South Africa. The United Nations had 500 people and the Red Cross societies of Germany, the US, Denmark, Norway, Spain and Britain sent teams to help.

Among the many others who came were three planeloads of Libyan soldiers (who brought heavy arms and scuba gear), the Sudan, Algeria and Libya, who sent medical teams and Japan who sent 16 doctors.

Material aid arrived from Ghana (rice, maize, used clothes and blankets), Zambia (food and medical supplies), Namibia (canned pilchards), Egypt (blankets, food, medicines and tents), Angola (food and 200 000 litres of airplane fuel) and Burundi which donated 20 tons of sugar.

Kenya, Tanzania, Gabon, Mauritania, Mauritius and Morocco were among the African countries to show solidarity.

The logistics involved in co-ordinating the activities of the rescue operations makes for absorbing - and often amusing - reading.

Maputo's airport management had not been included in emergency planning and the huge increase in emergency flights caught them by surprise.

A key figure was Lt-Col Jaco Klopper, the SAAF task force commander who had been in Mozambique for previous floods and knew the terrain. He was asked to co-ordinate the loading, unloading, fuelling and parking of the foreign air forces as they flew in.

Hanlon says the outpouring of support was truly amazing and came with the best of intentions and a genuine desire to help. Mozambique could not refuse any gifts.

"But well-meaning support was sometimes clothed in paternalism and arrogance," he said. "There was the belief that because Mozambique was poor and suffering, anything would do."

Donations of medicines were a headache. The Ministry of Health issued two appeals. The first was in February when the main worries were malaria and cholera. The response was positive.

The second, in March, was to replace medicines lost in flooded health posts. The request was for 33 basic medicines. The response included 403 different medicines but only 15 percent were actually useful in the emergency. At least half the donated drugs were out of date or useless and were being dumped on Mozambique.

Hanlon believes many contributions, such as tinned goods, were not appropriate. Mozambique had to deal with shipments when they arrived at the airport or port, work out what to do with the donation, find warehouse space and transport at a time when the country was overstretched by the crisis.

"Without asking, Nigeria sent a shipload of maize in October without any contribution to local costs - at a time when a maize surplus in the north of Mozambique meant local maize was available quite cheaply."

While he praises the "spectacular outpouring" of help from South Africans of all races, he feels people should be encouraged in emergencies to make cash donations instead of kind.

Many South Africans sent maize meal at a time when a well-developed food distribution system was in place. The cost of having to buy the meal at retail prices, ship it to Mozambique and deal with it on arrival was greater that getting the same amount of food to displaced people.

The book looks at weather predictions and dam construction - and aid promised by international groups for reconstruction. Damage was estimated at $450-million (R3 600-million) but less than a quarter of the money promised has been received.

"The incredible part of the flood story is not so much that 45 000 were rescued but that so few were drowned," he said.

"No starvation or even malnutrition followed the floods. Best of all, considering past history, it showed genuine solidarity between South Africa and Mozambique."

  • Mozambique and the Great Flood of 2000 by Frances Christie and Joseph Hanlon is published by James Currey, Oxford, at R129,95.