Recent spates of flush floods have sent shivers in flood-prone parts of Malawi—and government must make haste to avert a similar humanitarian crisis in the Shire Valley.
The country has been awash with reports of floods which have displaced 4 929 households in Phalombe, Mangochi, Salima, Zomba and Dedza districts, according to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA).
According to Mangochi district commissioner Thomas Chirwa, three days of relentless rains have affected the whole district with the far-flung Chimwala locality among the worst hit.
“No death has been reported, but most of the displaced households have lost their livestock and other property. We will need thorough assessments by various departments to establish the extent of the disaster,” the DC told MBC on Saturday.
Nearly in all hit districts, survivors have sought refuge in churches and schools. The floods are no near the 1991 Phalombe disaster, locally known as Napolo, but the death of one in Phalombe and the overall devastation elsewhere must awaken policymakers and decision-makers to the fact that disasters interrupt lives of the poor with no coping strategy.
“Since disaster struck, people in the congested classrooms and churches have been hoping that government and other organisations will bring them foodstuffs and other relief items, but they continue sleeping on empty stomachs,” lamented Phalombe North MP Anna Kachikho last week.
Her lamentation is not new. Nowhere does it come more regularly than in Chikhwawa and Nsanje where floods left about 6 000 people homeless this month last year.
For those quick to judge, the Shire Valley communities are earning a living from floods, for they know the dangers of living near riverbanks, but refuse to relocate because they get giveaways every time floods hits their localities. But despite the unpredictable flows of Shire River, its silted banks remain a fertile ground for agricultural activities unmatched by most upland areas.
A recent visit to Mwanawanjobvu and other parts of T/A Ngowe on the borders of Chikhwawa and Nsanje shows households are yet to leave from disaster flashpoints. They are still harvesting their potatoes, tomatoes and other food crops which flood markets in Blantyre and other neighbouring towns.
“Judging by the influx of black ants in the area and the abundance of mtondo fruits, we are going to have heavy rains and that increases the likelihood of floods. I fear for those that are yet to relocate from the river banks,” says T/A Ngowe’s counsellor Harold Kennedy.
Interestingly, the village elder knows that disasters affect all spheres of life, school, health, transport and businesses—saying: “Even religion cannot thrive”. He says as early as September, traditional leaders and village disaster committees in Chikhwawa have been urging those still living by the river to relocate.
In Nsanje, even Malawi Police Service have joined in, sensitising at-risk communities in T/A Mlolo, Nyachikadza, Malemia and Tengani whose plight forced chiefs to sign an agreement with government to move upland.
“Despite signing the memorandum of understanding to shift from the worst hit areas, there has been no progress,” said Nsanje Police officer-in-charge Sekani Tembo in November last year.
A preliminary report on post-disaster needs assessment shows that Nsanje alone lost goods worth about K810 million due to this inertia last year—with World Bank disaster risk specialist Francis Nkoka saying the vulnerable population will need an extra K2 billion for relocation.
According to DoDMA principal secretary Geoffrey Kanyinji, government contributed K200 million to a basket fund for last year’s floods. This week, he said, they will start spending K100 million on flour, beans, salt, blankets, kitchen utensils and plastic sheets for victims of the recent spate in Phalombe, Zomba, Mangochi, Dedza and Salima.
“Nsanje and Chikhwawa usually experience floods between January and February. With heavy rains in Blantyre, Mwanza, Mulanje and other areas that feed Lake Malawi and Ruo River, we expect the Shire to flood in the next two or three weeks,” said Kanyinji.
This is expected. So are the claims that government and its partners have been sensitising locals to move upland quickly, “not to wait for floods”.
On the ground, disaster preparedness entails much more than just raising awareness. Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) is putting this thinking in action.
Where old-timers rely on signs of nature to foretell approaching dangers, the Faith-based organisations have planted rain gauges on Lalanje and other problem rivers. According to Thudzu village civil protection committee chairperson Wyson Siyamalo, the multicoloured yardsticks on the river banks offer a vital danger-warning sign—for being forewarned is being forearmed.
“When water levels hit green, we know we are safe. Yellow denotes a flood risk, a time to start blowing whistles, phoning people and megaphones for the people to relocate to designated camps. Red is complicated, a total disaster,” says Siyamalo.
The water levels last reached the yellow bar in 2010 and the escape left Mwananjobvu Primary School congested with men and women stuffed in one room.
Today, EAM has built a state-of-the-art flood victims’ shelter at Khungubwe in Chikhwawa, a stark contrast of poor sanitation, water unavailability, privacy threats and shortage of medical services which beset the 257 lives at a government-established camp at Bangula last year.
For Mary and Andrew Mainde of Mwananjobvu, every day of January is a countdown to another flood like the one which left them scampering from their temporary huts to a neighbouring primary school in 2010. They say the new shelter is roomier, more hygienic—much better than interrupting their children’s education by occupying schools.
Despite the milestones, locals realise that clinging to danger zones risks not only their lives and property but also the success of steps towards putting the at-risk populations out of harm’s way. Government must build on this knowledge by taking radical steps for the good of its citizens flirting with disaster. Now that Kanyinji knows the calendar catastrophe is almost here, his department should start mobilising resources for sanitation and water in potential relief sites rather than waiting to send helicopters and relief items after the damage.
It is said that a stitch in time saves nine, but disaster risk management experts says a penny invested in prevention saves 10.