Authorities in Zimbabwe are commandeering privately-owned cars, lorries and even donkey-carts in a race against time to evacuate thousands of villagers living downstream of a major dam wall that appears dangerously near to collapse.
Up to 60,000 villagers near the city of Masvingo are in “immediate danger” from rising water levels after weeks of heavy rain. Part of the Tokwe-Mukorsi Dam wall has crumbled and work has been going on around the clock since Sunday to shore it up.
There are fears that the wall will give way, creating a giant wave that could submerge communities and wildlife for miles around. The sugar-cane growing Triangle area and parts of the Gonarezhou National Park, famous for its elephants, are at risk.
Hundreds of homes have been destroyed as levels in the Tokwe River rise rapidly. Villagers have braved crocodiles to rescue goods and cattle before being forced on to higher ground.
Rescue efforts have been hampered by a lack of resources. Until yesterday, the Civil Protection Unit had just 40 lorries, six tractors and one air force helicopter at its disposal and only 101 families had been evacuated.
President Robert Mugabe, 89, declared the situation a national disaster on Sunday, which has allowed the authorities to commandeer all local assets to help in the rescue efforts.
Local government minister Ignatius Chombo said yesterday: “Our aim is to make sure that there is no loss of life and all assets such as trucks and even scotch-carts that will have been commandeered to assist in this exercise will be compensated.”
The government is working on a financial package that will see more air force helicopters and boats being deployed.
The authorities are still trying to establish how many people have been made homeless, while the local Red Cross has set up 600 tents for temporary shelter.
State radio reported that the area has not seen rains as heavy as these since 1974. Southern Zimbabwe is drought-prone and has had several years of repeated crop failures due to low rainfall.
Work on the dam – meant to provide irrigation and hydro-electric power – began in 1998 but stalled in 2008. Reports say the Italian firm Salini Impregilo, which took over the project, has struggled to get it up to standard and Mr Mugabe’s government has not always heeded its advice.
Yesterday, former education minister David Coltart, of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, criticised state media for playing down the story “as if there is not a major crisis”.
Environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere, who was at the dam, tweeted: “Tokwe is holding and work is under way. It’s tough but it will be done.”