11 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Rains a Double-Edged Sword


While rains spell boom for Zimbabwe's agro-based economy, the onset of the rainy season has brought a fair share of challenges to this landlocked Southern African nation of about 13 million.

Villagers, travellers and property owners are crying foul.

So are roads and bridges, which now bear the hallmarks of something having gone terribly wrong.

Countless people have lost life, limb and property through lightning strikes, crocodile attacks and drowning. Poorly-planned structures show signs of stress and sometimes collapse on wet ground.

All sorts of accidents are on the high side during the rainy season. Last Sunday, four people drowned when a kombi was swept away while crossing the flooded Chilonga Bridge in Chiredzi.

Less than two days earlier, four other people had suffered the same fate when their Toyota Corolla was swept away while being towed across a flooded river by a tractor in Mutoko. The Sunday Mail reported that two visually-impaired men drowned when they decided to swim while taking a bath in a river Buhera. A youthful caregiver who was on site failed to control the pair, resulting in the drownings which cast a dark cloud on the community and left people asking countless questions.

And since the onset of the rains, newspapers have been awash with reports of people who have lost life and limb after being attacked by crocodiles in rural Zimbabwe.

These hair-raising incidents have shaken, blighted and crushed the nation, spelling the need for awareness campaigns to arrest the problem.

"My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge," reads the Bible in Hosea 4:6.

And no other statement rings truer. The rate at which people are dying owing to accidents that can be prevented attests to this fact. People smile at calamity by getting acquainted to it, but that does not mask the need to take preventive measures.

Continuous loss of lives spells doom for the economy and threatens national development.

During the dry season, engine oil and grease build up on the road over time. When mixed with water from a new rainfall, the road becomes extremely slick.

Continued rainfall will eventually wash away the oil, but the first few hours can be the most dangerous.

Motorists must drive at a slower pace than normal when the roads are wet, keeping in mind that traffic is likely to be moving slower as well. There is also the possibility that your preplanned route may be flooded or jammed. Whatever the case, rushing equals higher risk.

Children often drown while attempting to fetch a toy or ball from the river. Others meet death while swimming and it is advisable to ensure they are good swimmers or they are always accompanied by a responsible adult when near the river.

According to researchers, river crossings can be dangerous. If you are in any doubt as to the safety of a river, you should not attempt a crossing.

If your planned route requires a river crossing, study weather reports and the forecast carefully.

"Has there been recent heavy rain in the catchment of the river, or is rain forecast? Plan your food supplies so that you can wait for a day on the bank if necessary, waiting for the river to subside."

In rural areas, crossing rivers is a daily occurrence. Children cross these places daily to and from school. People rely on the river for fishing, potable water and laundry. Some villages are separated by rivers, hence the need for people to cross rivers daily to visit relatives, on their way to the shops and to visit hospitals and other administrative centres.

For tourists, popular Victorian walking areas which involve river crossings include the walk to Sealer's Cove on the Wilson's Promontory circuit walk, and the walk out of Lake Tali Karng through the Valley of Destruction.

Before crossing, one should study the river carefully.

Some of the dangers to look out for include:

  • deep or fast-flowing water
  • "strainers", dead trees in the river which can catch things underwater (including you)
  • submerged, sharp, or slippery rocks, and
  • an uneven or unstable bottom

Not all of these dangers will be visible upon a casual inspection. If the river is too dangerous to cross at this point, look for a safer crossing point. Alternatively, be prepared to out-wait the waters. Every river is different, but there is need to be on the lookout for disaster.

If you can see obstructions in the river, plan a route through them before entering the water, but be prepared to change if things are not what you expected. Select a point on the opposite bank where you will exit the water.

Ideally the two most competent expeditioners should be at each end of the party, ready to help other party members if necessary. If you intend to cross as a group, for example with everyone holding onto a long stick, make sure that everyone knows what the plan is and what to do if someone falls over.

If crossing individually, use a stick or your trekking pole to test the water depth in front of you. It can also be used as a support, enabling you to keep two points of contact with the river bottom at all times.

According to experts, if you are carried away over rapids, obviously you should try to stay afloat.

"Attempt to manouevre yourself so that your feet point downstream and you are sitting up slightly.

This presents your legs and bottom to oncoming obstacles. In the past some people have carried a length of plastic tubing so they can breathe if they are caught under or in a submerged obstacle."

When out of the water, dry off as much as possible before putting your footwear back on. Make sure that all members of the party are warm and dry before setting off along the track. Many people swim in lakes and rivers all the time during the summer months, but rescue officials say this is a very dangerous practice.

"The river is dangerous. It's not a swimming pool. It's not something to be swimming in and having fun. It has a history of taking people's lives," says Warren County Rescue Assistant Chief, Earl Henderson.

He says what sets pools and large rivers and lakes apart are the strong currents. Henderson explains that swimming in a lake is like walking on an escalator.

"Being on the escalator where the escalator is going up and you're trying to walk down it, you'll either stay in the same spot or to compensate the escalator you have to move harder to get to the bottom."

It's also what's underneath the surface that can be deadly. Many times swimmers will also get stuck in underwater debris both from nature and man-made.

Swimming in rivers and large lakes is actually prohibited at many places.

If you still decide to swim in a large lake or river, experts encourage you to wear a buoyancy device to help you float even in strong waters.

Navigation on certain rivers can involve passing more or less dangerous rapids.

Here the quality of the organisation is of primary importance: above all, the trustworthiness of the equipment (especially outboard motors!) as well as the experience of the dug-out canoe driver.

Before going through tricky rapids

  • Take off your shoes
  • Don't wear heavy garments that could hamper your swimming
  • Important papers, money, among others, must be placed in a waterproof container that can float
  • While passing rapids, stay as close as possible to the centre of your dug-out canoe, try not to move and in particular don't stand up

Be careful of setting camp near rivers, especially the small ones. Rivers are home to crocodiles.

The big cayman of the Orinoco (crocodiles intermedius) which is in fact a crocodile, can be over 6 metres long, just as the black cayman (melanosuchus niger) of the Amazonian basin and the Guyanas. However, most specimen are much smaller. The difference between caymans and crocodiles resides essentially in the different position of the teeth of the lower jaw.

For fishermen, rivers are where they earn a living.

This, however, does not remove the need for safety precautions like ensuring that you do not stand in the water while fishing in case you are attacked by crocodiles. Swimming in muddy pools can be a cocktail for disaster.

Gentle reader, there is no better helping hand than the one at the end of your arms and it is advisable to be always on the lookout for danger.

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