The connection between drought and a deadly cholera outbreak in Malawi

Published: 3 June 2016 11:00 CET

By: Thea Rabe, Norwegian Red Cross

Madaliso Wilson could not speak when he came to the cholera clinic in the Zomba district of Malawi. However, following quick and effective treatment, he will survive the potentially deadly bacteria.

So far this year, more than 1,300 people have been diagnosed with cholera in Malawi. Thirty-five people have died, and the outbreak is still spreading in all three regions of the country.

Madaliso Wilson is 20 years old, and got cholera from drinking water from the nearby Lake Chilwa where he goes fishing every day. Lake Chilwa has been the source of most cholera cases in the Zomba and Machinga districts for the past few months. It is contaminated due to the drought currently hitting the region. With the lack of rain, no fresh water is added to the lake, causing bacteria levels to increase significantly. Fishermen drink water directly from this contaminated lake.

“The water situation is quite bad due to the lack of rain. In some communities, the water  is contaminated, and when people drink the water they get infected. They get acute diarrhoea or even cholera,” says Michael Charles, acting regional representative for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in southern Africa.

Malawi, along with the rest of southern Africa, is currently experiencing severe drought. The strongest El Nino in 30 years is causing erratic and low rainfall, affecting up to 8 million people in Malawi alone. Most people are affected by the lack of food, but contaminated water sources are also problematic.

“In Malawi and Mozambique we have cholera outbreaks at the moment. At the Red Cross, our volunteers work with communities to promote proper hygiene. They also support activities at the different cholera clinics,” Charles adds.

The bacteria level in Lake Chilwa, where Madaliso was infected with cholera, will not improve until large amounts of fresh rain is added to the lake. And with the rainy season coming to an end, it does not seem likely that the lake will be safe any time soon.

To prevent more people from getting cholera, it is crucial to provide people with alternative safe water sources, as well as information on hygiene and sanitation.

After being brought to the cholera clinic at an early stage, Madaliso Wilson, will survive. But the need for safe water sources for him and the other people living in the Zomba district remains critical.