Malawi: “The water has taken everything from us”

Published: 23 February 2015 8:55 CET

By: Lene Vendelbo, Danish Red Cross

Unprecedented flooding has caused chaos in southern Malawi where at least 230,000 people have been displaced. The Malawi Red Cross Society, with the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies provides food, mosquito nets and kitchen sets. But it is difficult to keep up with the ongoing rain.

“I was up to my neck in water,” 54-year-old Eliza Kambewa remembers. Together with her husband and five children she fled from the water  to a nearby church when the water suddenly rose and hit their house in Zomba, southern Malawi. The family is still living in the church while the rain keeps pouring down, leaving roads muddy and houses under water. “It is the rainy season and we are used to a lot of rain. But this was extraordinary,” said Christina Rasmussen, country coordinator, Danish Red Cross Society from Lilongwe. “We have never experienced this kind of flooding before.” 

This morning Eliza Kambewa went back to her home to what once was a house with blankets, pots and food. Now the house is surrounded by knee high water. And this is where we meet her.

“The water has taken everything from us! Our crops are gone! Our goats and chickens the same,” she cried.

Freezing child in knee high water

The Red Cross is already on the ground. The Malawi Red Cross Society, in partnership with the Danish Red Cross Society, has started distributing food. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is also setting up an operation. Eliza Kambewa and her family really appreciate the help. Yesterday she received maize flour, soy pieces, cooking oil, sugar, and salt.

“I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for the Red Cross,” she says.
She is standing in water to her knees while telling us that she is the mother of five children aged 5 to 14. She is clenching her son’s hand hard while telling us that the nights are especially hard on the children.

“My children try to keep warm using old sacks but it is not nearly enough,” she says, while a much younger member of the family tries to drown the rain with an insistent cry.

Children around here are normally very taciturn. Living in one of the poorest countries in the world, they are used to enduring hardship. Going to school is a luxury. Hard labour is to be expected from an early age.

And the children in the Kambewa family are just a few of the approximately 230,000 people who are caught in the floods. The Red Cross estimates that nearly 100 have lost their lives and fears that the nightmare has just started for Malawians.

“Because of the ongoing rain, still more people have to flee their homes. We expect that the number will rise to over 300,000,” says Rasmussen.

The fear of cholera

The rain has also washed away up to 66 per cent of latrines in the Zomba area where the Red Cross is currently implementing an extensive community-based health and first aid programme. “It is almost inevitable that drinking water and faeces will mix in a situation like that, so we expect to see outbreaks of diarrhoea and we fear the deadly cholera,” added Rasmussen. She is also worried about the crops and the upcoming harvest. “Much is destroyed and a lot will rot in the soaked fields.”

IFRC has launched an emergency appeal of 2.6 million Swiss francs to assist the Malawi Red Cross in supporting more than 42,000 people affected by the worst floods to hit the country in decades.