British rescuers bring rafts but water is needed

As flood waters recede desolate civilians scoop up contaminated water to make porridge from donated maize meal
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The Independent Online

As Lancashire firemen in "Save & Rescue" T-shirts attempted to assemble lifeboats sent from Britain, thousands of Mozambican women were forced, for another day, to use dirty floodwater to prepare porridge made from donated maize meal.

As Lancashire firemen in "Save & Rescue" T-shirts attempted to assemble lifeboats sent from Britain, thousands of Mozambican women were forced, for another day, to use dirty floodwater to prepare porridge made from donated maize meal.

After two days of busy air traffic over Mozambique amid a big if belated international response to the three-week flood crisis, it was obvious that much of the aid is ill-suited to alleviating the crisis. Peter Kaiser, a doctor with the German medical charity Malteser [Maltese Cross], watched the arrivals at Beira airport, near the northern flood zone, in disbelief. "If you have ever worked in a flood, you know clean water will be the main priority ... I would not have thought you need to be a doctor to know that without clean water there will be outbreaks of disease."

Two cargo helicopters sent by Germany were of some use yesterday in Beira as they ferried fuel and paramedics to the Save flood zone, in which an estimated 15,000 people are homeless. But with no victims known to be left perched in trees anywhere in the country and with water receding fast, the 40-odd British sea-rescuers wondered why they were here.

The most urgent need, local charities have been saying for at least four days, is for clean water to stop the diarrhoea outbreaks weakening survivors and, as far as possible, to minimise cholera cases. "Cholera is only a matter of time," said Dr Kaiser. He said there were scores of water-cleansing machines in a warehouse in Nairobi "but no one has asked for them".

Some 400 US troops arrive in Beira today. It is believed that British troops will cover the southern flood zone, with French colleagues.

But, given the receding waters and expectations that Cyclone Gloria will, at worst, materialise as heavy rain, it is unclear what they will do apart from distribute food and, possibly, malaria tablets.

The Britons in the north, members of the fire service, Royal National Lifeboat Institution and International Rescue Corps, were beginning to rethink the mission. Their co-ordinator, Martin Ogilvie, from the Department of International Development, told his crew of highly trained rescuers: "You will be digging wells or overseeing work in villages." He was considering seeking permission to call in a hydraulic engineer from Britain.

Apart from food and tarpaulins, the equipment Britain has sent is for sea rescue, which was the priority for relief workers for two weeks until Friday. The British consignment contains no spades for digging shallow wells or barrels in which to purify heavily silted water - an alternative to cumbersome machines. Until the silt has been removed, the water-purification tablets which have arrived will be largely ineffective. Existing wells in villages are still no use, as the water table is high. This means that dropping sacks of maize meal from the air is an invitation to the hungry flood victims to use dirty water, especially if they do not have wood with which to make fires to boil it.

In total, 113 vessels have come from Britain, including 39 self-inflatable rafts, bought from P&O Ferries, which had been intended for drops from helicopters and which are not expected to be used. Equipment arriving in Beira yesterday ranged from oil for outboard motors to boxes of Tesco "ultra-soft cloth wipes with baby lotion".

Likely to be of use in the diminishing depths of water on the Save plain are the smaller Avon inflatable boats with which the British rescuers will be able to reach those stranded on patches of land too small or too muddy for helicopter landings. But from now, unless the weather deteriorates, that is only a minor concern. Water-cleansing is urgent, as disease could be more deadly than the floods in the long term.

Furthermore, the British operation in Beira started slowly. The RNLI had intended launching a boat in a trial run for the benefit of British television crews but even that had to be postponed for a day because the Britons, unaccustomed to the heat, did not manage to get a single boat into the water yesterday.

Mr Ogilvie said: "Everyone at home thinks this should go really fast. But we are dealing with new equipment which has to be tested." The International Rescue Corps' mission to the town of Save, where it is to set up a base camp, was delayed until yesterday afternoon because the aircraft due to take them there did not turn up.