By the Climate Centre
Tens of thousands of people have been forced out of their homes in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe by flooding, caused by a deep low-pressure system that crawled across southern Africa, dumping week's worth of rain in many places in just a few hours.
In the worst-affected country, Malawi, authorities have reported more than 50 people dead and many others missing. More than 20,000 have been forced out of their homes, and approximately 30 per cent of the country – particularly the south – has been declared a disaster zone.
The government has said it is appealing for urgent international assistance.
The Malawi Red Cross Society has deployed volunteers and staff who have managed to reach more than 7,000 houses affected by the floods with emergency shelter material (tents and tarpaulins), cookware, blankets and mosquito nets.
The society is also involved in search and rescue, and registration and camp management at a site where displaced people have taken refuge in the Southern Region district of Chikwawa, near the country’s second city, Blantyre.
Malawi Red Cross Society Secretary General Ethel Kaimila was herself in the field, helping 60 staff and volunteers distribute relief supplies.
Advisories and warnings
Since mid-December, when heavy seasonal rains began, the Red Cross has been involved in disseminating early-warning information from the Malawi Meteorological Service, which said the low-pressure system continued to shift further eastwards towards Madagascar, reducing moisture inflow into southern Malawi.
“Expect lessening of rains over southern Malawi,” local forecasters said, while also warning that risks of flooding are still very high.
The Malawi military has sent helicopters and boats to rescue people stranded by floodwaters in Chikwawa and another Southern Region district, Nsanje – among the worst affected in the country.
Local news reports yesterday quoted Vice-President Saulos Chilima saying that some 800 people had been rescued from the flooded River Ruo and – Malawi’s biggest – River Shire.
But 2,500 people were still marooned on patches of high ground, and an unspecified number had declined to be evacuated because they did not want to leave their land, the reports added.
The Malawi Meterorological Service last year completed a project supported by the Finnish Red Cross and meteorological service and the Climate Centre to make it easier for communities to use weather information from professional meteorologists, and they are also collaborating in the Global Framework for Climate Services.
This week, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) released 192,292 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to help the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society with immediate needs such as clean water, hygiene materials and emergency shelter, initially to 500 flood-affected families in urgent need.
Heavy seasonal rain over Zimbabwe that intensified from New Year’s Eve triggered severe floods across the country and killed at least 11 people.
Meanwhile, Mozambique’s major north-south arterial road was damaged on Friday after two bridges collapsed in heavy flooding that has killed 25 people and displaced nearly 20,000, according to officials
Parts of the country are also without electricity after torrential rain toppled a number of pylons.
The Mozambique Red Cross Society – a world leader in early warning early action for at least a decade and a half – is taking part in an inter-agency assessment of the number and needs of flood-affected people.
One news report says at least 15 people in the central province of Zambezia died when the usually placid Licungo River became a raging torrent in the worst floods this river basin has known since 1971.
Climate Centre Director Maarten van Aalst, who is also a Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said climate change was probably a factor in the scale of flooding. “As always, there are challenges with the quality of the data and models, and there’s also variability from one decade to the next that makes attributing extreme rainfall to climate change more difficult,” he said.
“But a preliminary analysis of climate models and current observations suggests there probably was a climate change component in this extreme-weather episode.
“The big question that the scientists will be looking at over the next few days, weeks and months is: how big a factor could it be?”