By Frank Nyakairu
LUSAKA, March 25 (Reuters) - Zambia and Namibia face their worst floods in at least 40 years as rains swell the Zambezi River to record levels, destroying crops and swamping whole villages, disaster officials and aid workers said on Wednesday.
Zambia has put its air force on standby to airlift people to safety and Namibia has declared a state of emergency in flood-hit areas as waterways burst their banks in the narrow Caprivi Strip between Zambia and Botswana.
Some 400,000 people have been affected on both sides of Namibia’s border with Angola alone, the international Red Cross movement said, adding that the number was likely to rise.
"We’ve heard some incredible stories," Matthew Cochrane, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said by telephone from the town of Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip.
"Communities totally cut off by rising water, and quickly. Crocodile attacks, hippo attacks, snake bites. These are some of the risks people face. Then there’s the more mundane risks: malarial and diarrhoeal diseases, and just the lack of food."
In some villages, 70 to 80 percent of food stocks had been wiped out, Cochrane said.
"It’s a real sense that it’s bad but it’s getting much worse," he added. "The water is already approaching 8 metres (26 feet) and it will surpass that in coming days."
Data from Namibia’s Hydrological Service showed river levels along the Kavango River at their highest since 1963. Those in the Upper Zambezi River were at peaks not seen since 1969 and rising.
The official death toll in Namibia is 92 but aid workers said it would almost certainly be much higher.
In Zambia, water levels in some districts were higher than they had been since 1969, threatening crops ahead of the critical summer growing season.
"We are asking people to leave low land for higher lands because the waters are increasing fast," said Dominiciano Mulenga, national coordinator of the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit.
He said the road linking Zambia and Zimbabwe was damaged, cutting off Shang’ombo district from the rest of the country.
The Southern Province of Zambia is the worst hit, with more than 20,000 households affected and 5,000 houses destroyed, the Swiss branch of relief group Action by Churches Together said.
Hydrological experts played down fears the rising waters could overwhelm the Kariba dam on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, creating a regional catastrophe for countries downstream including Mozambique and Malawi.
But Peter Rees-Gildea, the IFRC’s head of operations in Geneva, said the organisation was keeping a close eye on Tropical Storm Izilda, which was heading for Mozambique’s east coast.
In January, rains in Malawi and Zambia caused flooding in Mozambique that killed 45 people and left 285,000 homeless, the worst floods to hit the country since 2000-2001 when 700 people died and half a million lost their homes. (Writing and extra reporting by Tim Large in London; Editing by Charles Dick) (For more news on humanitarian issues visit www.alertnet.org)