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Malawi, 2 February 2015: After the deluge: Malawians getting on with things

UNICEF Malawi/2015
© UNICEF Malawi/2015

Despite the devastating damage caused by the floods in Malawi, the country’s people are showing remarkable resilience. Or, to put it another way, the capacity to keep on keeping on.

By Suzanne Beukes

2 February 2015, Malawi – Under looming black rainclouds, Mrs Patrick Zawa carefully uses her bare foot to cover the handful of seeds she has thrown into shallow holes in the waterlogged soil. It looks like a dance-move choreographed to the upbeat music blaring from the cellphone radio nestled in a waterproof plastic packet somewhere in her dress.

It is hardly the picture of the devastating damage caused by unprecedented flooding in Malawi. It is reflective, though, of the extraordinary ability of people affected by the floods to try to get on with things.

Mrs Zawa is planting rice in the patch of land on the side of the road between Blantyre and Nsanje in Southern Malawi, because the maize she had previously planted was destroyed in mid-January when the area experienced heavy flooding. “I’m going to transplant the rice to the wetlands over there (she points towards the river) once they are bigger and then plant maize here again when its drier.” There is a catch, though - she doesn’t have maize seeds or money to buy any.

Prone to flooding

This part of southern Malawi, with the majestic muddy Shire River winding through the bright green fields, populated with thin, twirling grey smoke towers from household kitchen fires, is known as the fertile region. It is prone to flooding, and each year the majority of the people who live here and who farm maize, sweet potatoes and other crops pick themselves up after their fields have been drenched, and in extreme cases, some take refuge in nearby schools for a couple of days before returning to the toiling and harvesting of their livelihoods.

This year, something changed dramatically in the magnitude of the flooding and scale of the damage caused. Some 200 people have died and around 170,000 people have been displaced. Hundreds are likely missing and thousands remain marooned on small islands, desperately watching to see if the water level drops as their hungry stomachs ache.

They must rely on only a few helicopters from the Malawi Defence Force, South Africa and WFP, and one boat, to provide them with supplies. Those with some money are able to use a budding private canoe system made up of farmers-turned-sailors who transport people and goods to and from isolated locations through the temporary lakes for a fee. But even for intrepid entrepreneurial boatmen like 35-year-old Dickson House, this can be treacherous. “Sometimes the current is just too strong for us to go through, and then we can’t work.”

UNICEF Malawi/2015
© UNICEF Malawi/2015
Humanitarian agencies like UNICEF have moved in to help provide basic shelter, food, water, and sanitation to the displaced population.

Picking up the pieces

Humanitarian agencies like UNICEF have moved in to help provide basic shelter, food, water, and sanitation to the displaced population. But the threat of further heavy rains looms, and the question is not only how to address the immediate needs of all the hungry, traumatised and homeless people, but also how they can pick up the pieces of their lives, when for most, all the pieces have been washed away. Malawi is no stranger to food shortages, and already over 40% of children under the age of five are stunted – due to food shortages, poor living conditions and lack of food variety.

It is these children who are most at risk when they are in overcrowded camps, where the risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhea are ever-present. Along with the humanitarian catastrophe, the economic consequences are extreme. According to a Reuters report, President Mutharika has estimated losses of up to 54 million US$, and predicts that the country will likely miss the 5.8 percent economic growth forecast this year - a bitter and unfair blow for one of the world’s poorest nations.

Mainstreaming climate change

Although this year’s floods are record-breaking, it is likely that this will not be the last. “We are talking about climate extremes and definitely we are going to see a lot more intense rainfall, more floods, more drought, especially in the parts of Africa where the capacity to build resilience is not available,” says Elina Kululanga from the department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services in Malawi. She adds, “The damage caused itself shows just how costly floods can be if climate change is not mainstreamed in our planning processes.”

The cost of these floods and imminent extreme weather patterns for Mrs Zawa comes down to a bag of maize seeds, which translates to the roof over her five children’s heads, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, and ultimately their futures.



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