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Coast protection

Treacherous waters

by Holger Thomsen
Installing a water level gauge near Beira

Installing a water level gauge near Beira

Domingos Nhama José, a fisherman, points to what remains of his home. “Next week, the ocean will have washed it away completely,” he says. Like Nhama, some 55,000 people in Beira may lose their homes to the sea by 2017. By Holger Thomsen

The port city of Beira lies about 1,110 kilometres north of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. It saw heavy fighting in the civil war that ended 20 years ago. Today, the city is facing a different danger: climate change. The ocean level is rising, extreme weather is becoming more frequent, and the dunes that protect the city are being eroded. Vast fortification projects copying the dike system in the Netherlands, for instance, would be far too expensive.

Of all the countries in Africa, Mozambique is the most affected by extreme weather events. Beira is the weakest point on its 2,700-kilometre coastline. Tropical cyclones that build up over the Indian Ocean send water surging into Beira, inundating residential and poverty-stricken areas, some of which lie a few metres below sea level. Normally the city is drained of water at low tide, and the connections to the sea are locked at high tide. This system, however, cannot cope with long running floods.

When storms surge in combination with torrential rains, the local river overflows. The consequences are bad. Within hours, the drainage system backs up, evacuation routes are cut off and faecal material seeps into the fields and food chain, even contaminating drinking water. Only the old colonial city centre, a small section of Beira, lies high enough to be spared.

Beira’s residents no longer count only on state agencies to keep them safe. With help from the National Institute for Disaster Management (INGC) and the municipal government, they have begun to form local protection committees of up to 20 people. The committees meet regularly to prepare for emergencies, draft plans and define evacuation routes. In cooperation with the local university, they have installed flood sensors along the drainage canals, which send alarms to committee members when water levels exceed certain limits.

The city government has also taken some other measures. In 2010, it established the Agency for Disaster Management, Climate Change Adaptation and Coastline Protection. The city, more­-over, started innovative dialogue forms for discussing tangible issues like coastal erosion. The GIZ and the private-sector consultancy consortium IP Consult/AMBERO are supporting municipal efforts on crisis management plans.

Today, it makes a difference that Beira’s citizens have begun to cooperate closely with the municipal government. One night in January, residents of the Chipangara district alerted their local protection committee when heavy rains caused waters to rise. Upon inspection, they found out that a construction site was blocking the drainage system. Committee members informed the local authorities. The problem was quickly solved and greater damage avoided.

Most African coastal towns were planned as trading and military hubs in the colonial era. Today, many of them are expanding fast. Even in the most poverty-stricken urban areas, people have better chances of eking out a living than in poor rural districts. Climate change, however, is an existential threat to coastal cities.

To rise to the challenges, individuals’ initiative and community spirit are both needed. Some officers say a new mindset is evolving. “People used to wait for the government to solve their problems,” states Augusto de Jesus, Head of the Beira’s Agency for Disaster Management. “Today, thanks to the local committees, people have understood that they can become active themselves and they choose to participate.”