Most people cannot find Mozambique on a map. For many years, those who did know where the country was located did their best to avoid it. A 13-year civil war ravaged Mozambique, but it ended in 1992. Since then, the government has made remarkable progress in undoing the damage wrought by the war. The embrace of democracy and economic reform — along with generous amounts of foreign aid and investment — have produced annual economic growth in excess of 10 percent over the last few years.

Much of that success has been undone in recent weeks. Downpours and Cyclone Eline have inundated the country, turning the placid Limpopo and Save rivers into swollen torrents that are 125 km wide in some places. The devastation has been especially acute in the south, the poorest and least productive part of the country — ironically, as a result of a lack of rainfall.

The dimensions of the human tragedy continue to grow. The death toll is already in the hundreds, but no exact count is available. More than 250,000 people are jammed into refugee camps, and hundreds of thousands more are homeless. About 1 million people — more than 5 percent of the population — will require food and other forms of assistance for months.

Even if the rains have stopped — and forecasts are not optimistic — the damage will take years to undo. Flooding has washed away crops, drowned cattle, cut roads and destroyed much of the country’s fragile infrastructure. The country has lost an estimated 150,000 hectares of staple food crops, including one-third of its cereal crop. The planting season begins in April, but the waters must first recede and the Mozambicans must then procure seeds. The number of malaria cases has already tripled, and contaminated drinking water has prompted fears of outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.

Even more terrifying is the displacement of the 5 million land mines left over from the war. The flood waters exposed many and moved many more, rendering obsolete old maps of minefields. They pose a danger to relief workers, as well as to farmers when they return home. Efforts to replant fields will be stymied, compounding the food shortages.

The world has responded to the sad spectacle in Mozambique. About $65 million in aid and assistance has been donated, and relief officials estimate that there are food stocks for at least three weeks. More important are offers from the United States and Britain to forgive some of the country’s $88 million in foreign debt. Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest countries; easing the debt burden will be essential to its recovery in the medium and long term.

While Mozambique has been hardest hit by the floods, other nations are also hurting. On the island of Madagascar, over 100 people are dead, 10,000 are homeless and hundreds of thousands of others will be depending on assistance. About 20,000 in Zambia have been displaced by the floods. In Zimbabwe, the government claims that a quarter of a million people need assistance as a result of flooding in the eastern and southern parts of the country.

If there is a bright spot to this tragedy, it is the response of African nations to the disaster. While Western governments have been criticized for moving too slowly, Mozambique’s neighbors have stepped into the breach. South African pilots have been leading the rescue efforts, evacuating 14,000 people from the rising waters. Malawi, a poor country in its own right, and Lesotho have also been unstinting in their help. Nonetheless, African officials concede that the efforts have been ad hoc; organizations such as the Organization of African Unity are not ready for such emergencies. They must make preparations for future contingencies.

The task is made doubly difficult by the poverty that is found throughout the region. Southern African nations are some of the poorest in the world. That only compounds the tragedy. In 1998, Mozambique’s farmers produced the country’s first agricultural surplus; they did it again last year. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Mozambique was predicted to have the highest growth rate in Africa this year. The rains have washed that progress away.

Mozambique deserves a second chance; with our help, it can get it. The government has estimated that it will need $250 million to get back on its feet. Its debt to international organizations is $2.8 billion. A coordinated program of foreign aid and debt relief will help put the country back on the road to a sustainable recovery.

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