Floods: opportunities or threats to resilience? Ask a farmer

The idea of resilience, the capacity to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity, has become increasingly important within international development. Resilience thinking is often presented as inherently a good thing. However, as  Alex Arnall explains, this approach avoids key questions such as: What do we want to keep the same? What do we want to change? And who decides?

Communities are inherently socially differentiated, and any social or ecological system delivers goods and services that are valued differently by different people. A resilient community may meet certain people’s notions of a good and prosperous way to live, but not others. 

Since 2011 I have been exploring these issues in and around the Lower Zambezi River valley in central Mozambique. The region is home to some 2.8 million small-scale farmers, a significant proportion of whom choose to live on the floodplain where the soils are most fertile. In recent years, this lifestyle has come under threat from floods due to extreme weather events and upstream dam construction.

Resettlement from the Lower Zambezi floodplain

In 2007 particularly severe inundations led the Mozambican government to permanently resettle tens of thousands of people from the floodplain to new villages on higher ground a few kilometres away. These activities were accompanied by
government- and donor-led interventions designed to consolidate people’s lives in their new surroundings. Much of my work has focussed on speaking with relocated people to learn more about their lives in resettlement villages, and how they view the changes that they have experienced.  

Resettlement Barrio two. Credit: Alex Arnall

The resettlement programme is intended to build people’s resilience to the impacts of extreme weather events. However, discussions with small-scale farmers show that the outcomes of this intervention are mixed. Many relocated farmers are relieved to be out of the way of floods, and some have benefitted from the receipt of ‘modern’ houses positioned close to schools and roads. 

Others, however, have struggled to adapt to their new surroundings: they are not used to living in close confines with other people, and are unable to grow their usual crops in the drier soil conditions typically found in higher areas of land. For example, Julio, who received one hectare of land next to his resettlement village, explains:

“Before, life was easier as I lived next to my fields in the low area where everything grew well. But here in the high area I never know if my maize crop is going to succeed. The government has been helping us here, teaching us how to grow new plants, such as sesame, but some people want to get back to the low area where the farming is better”. 

As a result of experiences such as Julio’s, since 2007, approximately one third of resettled people have chosen to abandon their new villages and return to their old lives on the floodplain. 

Building resilience of what, for whom? 

Most farmers overwhelmingly view floods as opportunities, not threats, due to their invaluable soil-enriching properties.In Mozambique, many small-scale farmers practicing agriculture in and around major river systems like the Zambezi’s would like to increase their resilience to what they define as negative physical and social events. But they want to do this within the environment of the floodplain, not outside of it. 

In the case of resettlement, the power to make decisions about resilience in an informed manner has been taken away from small-scale farmers by government officials and disaster risk reduction (DRR) experts. This has been done with relatively little consideration of the fact that most farmers overwhelmingly view floods as opportunities, not threats, due to their invaluable soil-enriching properties. As a result, farmers are trapped between two scenarios: between living in a resettlement village and facing unfamiliar climatic and soil
, or returning to the River valley and facing the possibility of more large-scale floods as well as the withdrawal of government services from a region now identified as ‘hazardous’.  

Never before has it been so important for development interventions to build the resilience of people exposed to shocks and stresses around the world. The question is: who decides what is in the best interests of people? The Mozambican case suggests that real resilience originates from empowering vulnerable people themselves to resist and transform the wider conditions of adversity in which they are located. This is preferable to relying on the interventions of authorities and experts once disaster has struck.

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Flood waters still remain in the Caia district of the Zambezi river region, Feb 2008. Andy Hall/Oxfam
Barrio Two resettlement village, most houses in resettlement villages are constructed out of ‘modern’ materials, such as concrete and zinc sheets. Credit: Alex Arnall

Contact details and full profile for  Alex Arnall

Author: Alex Arnall
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.