GENEVA (AFP) – Virtually every country in southern Africa is on alert for potentially disastrous flooding, the United Nations said on Friday, as exceptionally heavy rainfall was forecast to continue into March.
"We fear flash floods. It's rather common in the region and this time we are seeing heavier rainfall than in previous years," said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"Five countries are on alert for flooding -- Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, -- and South Africa will now declare a disaster."
"All neighbouring countries including Madagascar are on alert," she told journalists.
In South Africa flooding and storms have left 40 dead and forced 6,000 people to flee their homes so far, according to the UN, with reports of damage or casualties in Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Malawi, Angola and Swaziland.
Two of the biggest rivers in the region, the Zambezi and Okavango, are at about twice their normal levels early in the rainy season.
"We could have an extremely major disaster if prevention measures are not stepped up over the next six weeks," Byrs said.
The UN warned of the risk of increased cholera -- which is endemic in some countries -- and malaria in any major flood, as well as the danger of widespread destruction of crops in southern Africa's 'bread basket'.
Regional forecasts have predicted "normal to above normal" rainfall across the area in January to March.
Relief workers fear a repeat of the kind of disaster that struck Mozambique in 2000, when devastating downpours caused massive floods that killed 800 people.