Published on Wednesday, March 1, 2000 in the Independent/UK
Mozambique Floods: Aid Agencies Appalled At Lack Of International Help
by Alex Duval Smith in Maputo

Aid agencies struggling against the odds to reach victims of Mozambique's worsening floods expressed deep disappointment on Tuesday at the paltry international response to a month-old crisis now affecting 1.9 million people.

In what they hope will be a precursor to an American relief intervention, a US air force carrier bearing tarpaulin to shelter 10,000 refugees is expected to arrive in Maputo today. Yet despite an appeal last week for $65m (£40.6m) to assist 800,000 homeless people, donations have reached only a fraction of that and United Nations aid agencies had to issue a desperate appeal for more helicopters.

Stung by criticism of its failure to do more, the British government last night announced it would pay for the charter of two more civilian helicopters to add to the four it has charted already for use by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). But Britain'scontribution, although boosted by £800,000 yesterday and now standing at £3m, is still lower than that of smaller states like Italy and the Netherlands, which led the pledges at an emergency UN donors conference in Geneva yesterday with $5m and $3.15m respectively.

Defence specialists lambasted the British response, suggesting army helicopters and Royal Marine assault boats could be transported to the region quickly using Hercules military transport planes if the government was truly committed to a relief effort. "If the Prime Minister wanted this to happen, it would happen," said Paul Beaver, a defence analyst with Jane's Defence Weekly.

On Monday, Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, told the Commons: "We will do all we can but it is going to get worse before it gets better." She criticised the UN efforts, adding: "We are hunting for helicopters and we can pay for them. As we speak my officials are hunting all around to try to get more in."

But Mr Beaver said hundreds of lightweight assault boats operated by Royal Marine Commandoes, each capable of carrying 10 people to safety, were available and could be transported to Mozambique in a matter of hours, but said the political will to spend the tens of millions of pounds which would be involved was lacking.

Ms Short's Tory counterpart, Gary Streeter, echoed the criticism: "They need helicopters, and they need them now."

Fewer than a dozen helicopters are taking part in mercy flights to rescue the thousands trapped on rooftops or clinging to branches. As two rivers – including the Limpopo, which yesterday submerged the town of Chokwe and dozens of surrounding villages – continued to rise, the WFP spelt out the urgency of getting more air power to the region. "We've got families who are not going to be able to hang on much longer," a spokeswoman said.