Sweltering sunshine had just returned to the Shire Valley when we met Grace Bragiyo in her maize field where floods flashed past two weeks earlier.
The 66-year old, who was replanting, is among 125 000 people displaced by devastating floods that hit 923 000 people in Malawi, killing 56 and injuring about 580.
Her field, the size of a football ground, where gushing Likhubula River washed away crops ready for harvesting, is near a gaping gully where the river broke the M1 Road, burying crops in mud on the way to the Shire River.
“It’s a big loss,” she said. “We experienced heavy rains for three days. On March 8, Likhubula burst its banks and swept crops into the Shire, which had also swelled.”
The torrents ripped homes to rubble and swept away livestock and crops in Samson Village, Chikwawa. The seed in Bulagiyo’s bowl symbolised a new beginning that could wait.
“The tragedy struck while we were rising from hunger caused by last year’s drought. For a year, maize prices have been rising every week. In fact, a basinful that cost just K300 now sells at K1 200.
“Sadly, all crops were destroyed just when some people had started harvesting,” she explained.
Looking forward, the disaster will deepen hunger and poverty.
“The grain isn’t getting cheaper. We have to dig deeper in our pockets to buy food while enduring the cost of rebuilding,” said Hilda Tomas, from Chisadula Village.
Like her, Bulagiyo sounded defiant to the destructive rains that have disrupted livelihoods in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
“We don’t know what tomorrow brings. If floods come again, we will plant again to ensure our families do not starve. When the soil dries, the maize will be ready for harvest,” she says.
For decades, the Shire Valley has suffered back-to-back spates of flooding and hunger. Government estimates that the climate-related extreme weather events rub out 1.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Speaking at the global climate talks in Poland four months ago, Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining chief director Bright Kumwembe counted the losses eroding “hard-earned economic gains”.
“As we speak here, some people in Malawi are dying and some are left homeless; livelihoods are threatened and affected.
Generation and supply of electricity is being disrupted. Agricultural production is hampered. Ecosystems are losing their resilience. There is resurgence of human and agricultural pests and diseases,” he stated.
In 2015, both Chikwawa and the neighbouring Nsanje suffered the worst impacts of what President Peter Mutharika termed the country’s worst disaster.
But survivors, presently confined to overcrowded camps, say they have not seen worse floods than they experienced this year.
“The 2015 misfortune did not destroy crops in these fields,” recalls Tomas, who fears for her three children, especially a baby on her back. “Unless we find a quick solution to hunger, our children will starve and stunt. They will be prone to diseases and people will heap all the blame and redicule on us.”
About half of the children in the country are stunted, shows the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey. The condition disrupts a child’s physical growth as well as capacity to learn and fight diseases.
East of the Shire, we met Grace Jameson crossing a broken bridge on Nasolo River in a sunny afternoon walk to Mapelera Health Centre. The baby on her back had been shivering and vomiting all night, she said.
“It must be malaria,” she said. “The floods have left stagnant pools where mosquitoes are multiplying. We sleep in treated nets, but mosquitoes mostly bite before we go to bed,” she said.
Catholic Development Commission (Cadecom) works with communities in the valley to strengthen their understanding of climate change and conservation of nature.
Raymond Chimsale, Cadecom secretary in Chikwawa Diocese, reckons the recent floods offers numerous lessons on disaster risk reduction and management.
“The country needs to analyse what happened, appreciate how prone affected communities are and decide whether going back there will be the best option. Now, their crops are gone. We need to provide seed to help affected families replant and rebuild their livelihoods,” he said.
According to Rain Water Harvesting Association of Malawi secretary general MacPherson Nthala, providing seed, fertliser and other farm inputs to affected farmers will help survivors take advantage of the moisture and fertile soils in flooded zones to replace the lost crop.n