Relief is not enough in flood-stricken Malawi

Published: 18 February 2015 19:49 CET

By John Sparrow, IFRC

The rivers had risen again in the Lower Shire valley and, after the heavy overnight rain, reddish brown water poured from creeks and channels in already flood-stricken southern Malawi. Aid efforts paused. Trucks were blocked by fresh floods and waited for the torrent to subside.

Farmers in Chikwawa and Nsanje, two of the districts worst affected by weeks of heavy seasonal rains and unprecedented flooding, looked on in disbelief. When would it end? Wasn’t it enough they had lost their homes, their crops, their food stocks and their animals? But if it wasn’t floods, they said, they might have had drought to contend with. That’s the way things are in the Lower Shire. One comes hard on the heels of the other. Three years ago in Malawi, 2 million people faced hunger because of prolonged dry spells and three consecutive very poor harvests.

Now the tide had turned. On a Nsanje hillside where his displaced people crowded into a camp of sodden tents and shelters, elderly headman Wizman Manyowa told how his village had been overwhelmed by the Ruo, a tributary of the Shire. Six people had died and all that the flood waters had left behind was sand, strewn over their fields.

“There have been floods before but this is the worst I have ever seen,” he said. “You can no longer put your trust in the rains.”

In the past there was a pattern to them, he explained. “They would start and they would stop and you knew when they would. When the first rains came you would plant, in October and November. It used to rain in the morning and we’d work in the fields in the afternoon.

“It doesn’t do that anymore, and this year the rains were very late. It was January before we were planting. Right before the flood. All our seed was in those fields. All gone. There’ll be no harvest.”

Malawi’s farmers, though, never cease trying. Some near Mbewe, in Chikwawa’s Lundu traditional authority, have planted three times since the start of the rains. Floods at the end of December swept away the first planting, more flooding in mid-January took away the second, and late last week the third lay again in harm’s way. This time their persistence paid off. The rains eased and the waters abated. For now. The farmers know more could be on the way. Rains could continue for weeks yet.

If the harvests are poor - which is likely as most farmers have nothing left to plant and more than 14,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed - the spectre of another season of hunger looms, adding to the misery of at least 174,000 homeless and destitute people. Already the Department of Disaster Management Affairs and the UN have reported that food assistance is likely to be needed until the end of June.

But food aid alone will not solve the challenge of more and more erratic southern African weather, currently affecting Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well. Nor, on its own, will other, now desperately needed, emergency relief prevent Malawi’s 630,000 affected people from facing such disaster again.

“Flood and drought are a fact in southern Africa,” said Naemi Heita, regional disaster risk management coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “Extreme weather episodes are now a constant threat, whether you term it climate change or something else. We must reduce the risks as well as strengthen our capacity to respond. You can prepare for these events and mitigate the hazards.”

Red Cross programmes have begun to do that in southern Africa. With IFRC support, the Malawi Red Cross Society has been helping to strengthen civil protection committees and transfer early warning information from the country’s Meteorological Service to at-risk communities. And in neighbouring Mozambique, the Red Cross has long been at the forefront of early warning early action.

How the threat of disaster can be mitigated can be seen in Nsanje, in the once flood-prone Mbenje community. It used to be flooded every year because of an eroded river bank but this year, it has escaped the present inundation. As part of a mitigation project, the Red Cross helped to bring about, the people of Mbenje built a dyke to stabilize the bank and direct the river’s flow back to where it belongs.

Among other things, the sustainable use of land and water resources could be reviewed, better farming techniques introduced for sustainable crop diversification, and renewable energy - solar and wind - used to expand small-scale irrigation beyond the spread of floods. People could relocate to higher, safer ground still within reach of their fields.

If the climate is changing, Naemi Heita said, thinking must change to cope with it.

IFRC is supporting emergency operations in all three affected countries. Emergency appeals have been launched in Malawi and Mozambique, and funds have been released from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society in reaching flood-affected people.