By John Sparrow, IFRC
With over a third of Malawi devastated by floods after weeks of heavy rains, and with the fear of more to come, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a 2.6 million Swiss franc emergency appeal to help 42,000 desperate people.
The appeal will support emergency operations of the Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS) which is already aiding thousands of destitute people in the worst-affected southern districts of Nsanje, Chikwawa, Phalombe and urban Blantyre.
On her return from the stricken areas, MRCS Secretary General Ethel Kaimila delivered a grim assessment. “Floods are a common occurrence in Malawi but nothing so desperate as this has been seen for more than a decade,” she said. “Our task right now is to ensure that people survive and to alleviate the appalling conditions so many are in. We must feed them, shelter them, ensure they have safe water and sanitation, and deal with the growing threat to their health. And when that is done we must help them to recover and resettle.”
The provisional appeal targets the immediate needs of 7,660 households for nine months.
An abysmal shortage of shelter is a major concern in the improvised camps to which people have fled. Tents are packed to overflowing and their occupants are sleeping on the bare ground.
The risk of epidemic disease grows by the day. Water sources are contaminated, sanitation is poor and without fast intervention, water-related diseases would seem to be inevitable. Cholera is endemic in the stricken districts and as flood waters recede, stands of stagnant water - breeding grounds for mosquitoes - will increase the spread of malaria. Poor shelter and exposure to the elements only heighten the dangers to health.
Michael Charles, IFRC’s acting regional representative in southern Africa, underlined the desperation in camps he had visited. “People have lost everything, conditions are dire and they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“I saw a camp of 2,500 people where 40 or 50 people sheltered in tents meant for a family of no more than ten. Food distribution was intermittent and those 2,500 had access to just four latrines. That’s the common picture. The camps are overcrowded and overwhelmed.”
The appeal seeks to fund a Red Cross operation in which safe water, sanitation and hygiene promotion would be provided in Blantyre and Phalombe, health and care services would help reduce risks in all four districts, and the most urgent shelter needs would be targeted. Food distributions would ease the plight of the displaced in Nsanje and Chikwawa.
The operation would also reunite families the floods have separated. Across the devastated south, people lost sight of loved ones in the chaos of evacuation, and children on their own in the makeshift camps are of special Red Cross concern.
Precisely how many people have been displaced is unclear and figures still need to be verified. Estimates vary but one count suggests at least 174,000 are now in displaced sites. The government estimates that in total 630,000 people have been affected.
More rains expected
Charles says camp numbers are certainly growing as sodden houses collapse and more people emerge from the devastation. And, he points out, the flooding has come early in the rainy season. Though the water has now receded, more rain is on the way. Malawi’s Department of Climate Change has forecast a cyclone formation will affect the entire southern Africa region.
“Rains may continue for weeks so the chance of more flooding is high,” said Charles. “We have to be concerned that a dire situation could be exacerbated. Things could go from bad to worse.” Relief efforts would also be hampered by more flooding.
Beyond the present needs, recovery and resettlement will pile on more challenges. What these districts need is emergency response that develops into longer-term efforts to restore livelihoods, shore up the means to cope, and strengthen community resilience.
Malawi is not just flood-prone. It is drought-prone, too, and most people in the stricken areas depend on subsistence farming. Life was already a struggle and drought in recent years had caused three consecutive failed harvests.
The floods swept in on top of that. “People have been pushed to the limit,” said Charles. “They have lost all they had: homes, food stocks, crops, livestock. What little they had is now gone. Ask people in the camps about going home and they say: home to what? We must think of all the repercussions. How will they put food on the table, how will they survive the next calamity, how will school fees be paid, what is the future for children who labour in the fields instead of the classroom?”
The future looks bleak and long-term support, including the reduction of disaster risk, is critical. “Without it,” Charles added, “Malawi will face permanent disaster.”