Cyclone Freddy raises cholera fears in worst-hit city
Children and families are at risk of contracting cholera in displacement camps
Until last week, Etiness Charles’ youthful family was the envy of their Three Ways community on the steep slopes of Soche Mountain, south of Blantyre City’s central business district in Malawi.
The 25-year-old mother of one was utterly delighted that her husband, a motorcyclist for hire worked day and night until they built a house they called their home for two years. The two-wheeled taxi cost commuters a dollar for a trip from their mountainside settlement and Limbe business town downhill.
“I was happy that my husband’s hard work had paid off. At least, we had a roof over our heads,” she says.
However, they lost everything except the clothes they were wearing on the rainy Monday noon when the densely populated hillside crumbled amid severe mudslides caused by Cyclone Freddy in Southern Malawi.
Etiness breaks down into sobs when asked about the disaster that claimed about 100 lives in the battered setting, displacing more than 5,000 people who fled to Manja Primary School at the foot of the deforested mountain.
Breastfeeding a baby on her lap at the camp, she narrates: “Earlier, we heard on the radio about the cyclone. For two days, heavy winds and rains battered the city non-stop until the mountain couldn’t absorb more rainwater.
“Then we heard a deafening crash as if the mountain was crumbling. The earth trembled. There was a muddy smell in the air. We heard the roar of water racing downstream as if a helicopter was flying too close to the ground. In no time, we saw mud and rocks racing downhill, burying people and houses in their way. There was little time to escape and many people were crushed dead in their homes. Some are still trapped in the mud.”
Etiness run uphill as the landslide ripped her clustered community.
“From the high ground where my baby and I stood in fear, I saw a huge rock crash my home to rubble. We ran to Manja because it was too risky to remain uphill since it was still raining, foggy and windy,” she states.
State of disaster
The trail of destruction can be seen from Manja Camp, where many survivors anxiously wait for the return of their missing friends and relatives but can hardly identify the decomposed bodies for closure’s sake.
“The mudslide has left us grief-stricken and poorer. We have no home to go back to when the storm is over. My father and three brothers are gone with the water. None of them has been found. If they are dead, I just want to see their bodies,” says Etiness.
President Lazarus Chakwera declared a State of Disaster, appealing for international support as the nation plunged into two weeks of mourning.
On Sunday, Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) reported that Cyclone Freddy has severely devastated 14 districts in southern Malawi, with 476 people confirmed dead, 918 injured and 349 missing.
Etiness and her neighbours personify the agony of about 508,244 displaced people scattered in 534 camps.
They feel lucky to have escaped alive, but fear the risk of preventable disease outbreaks fuelled by absence of water and sanitation infrastructures due to the destruction caused by the cyclone.
Etiness shudders to imagine surviving the tragedy that robbed her of his father and siblings, only for her or the baby in hand to succumb to the raging cholera outbreak.
Since she arrived at Manja camp, women and children have been jostling for clean water from a borehole drilled for about 3,000 schoolchildren and 44 teachers. They lose two to three hours waiting for a turn to fill their buckets.
As taps in the vicinity constantly run dry due to power blackouts and pipelines damaged by flash floods, the fierce scramble for water forced some to skip bathing, washing their clothes, washing hands and cleaning kitchen utensils.
Equally overwhelmed are the school’s 56 pit latrines, with about two in every three widely shunned because they have no doors.
During the visit, the few latrines that guaranteed users some privacy were mostly soiled, wet and foul-smelling, exposing the crowd to sanitation-diseases diseases, especially the raging cholera outbreak. Blantyre is the epicentre of the fast-killing bacterial disease that had claimed 1,682 lives from 54,677 confirmed patients by Monday.
Etiness laments, “I was already terrified of cholera when I arrived at the camp because the outbreak claimed the lives of my ten neighbours before the cyclone possibly because we were drinking untreated water from a rocky wellspring uphill, where the mudslide began.
“We urgently need water treatment chemicals to protect ourselves from the cholera outbreak that has hit our city the hardest.”
Camp leader Malinga Namuku says the situation was worse at the start.
“We were caught unawares, but the situation is improving with support from the government, its partners and other well-wishers. This solidarity shows how timely assistance lessens the suffering of people in dire need,” he says.
Manja camp has received four movable toilets from well-wishers. Blantyre Water Board has installed two inflatable tanks supplied by a water truck funded by UK Aid through UNICEF, which works with governments to provide relief to children in emergency zones.
Call for urgent support
To address this urgent situation, UNICEF is tirelessly working around the clock and mobilizing much-needed funds, its staff and emergency supplies to meet the critical humanitarian needs of affected children and their families. UNICEF is working in collaboration with the government, donors and implementing partners to provide life-saving health and nutrition services, safe water, hygiene and sanitation services , continued access to education, and to ensure that children are protected from harm and abuse.
UNICEF has delivererd prepositioned nutrition and WASH supplies in all districts in the eye of the storm, including 149 buckets, 50 plastic tarpaulins and health education kits for the Shire Valley’s devastated districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje.
However, the displaced population in congested and unsanitary camps says more support is needed as relief efforts remain scanty and roads impassable.
Health Surveillance Assistant Grace Kenamu conducts daily health education talks at Manja Camp. Every morning, she hops door to door at the school where up to 110 people sleep on dusty floors in an overwhelmed 60-seater classroom.
“We need urgent support because the school is overwhelmed, but access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene remains low. The toilets are always wet and dirty, putting children at risk of cholera and other preventable diseases.
During the health education sessions, Kenamu advises the displaced community to care for the classrooms, water sources and latrines “as their only home”.
“We need to close the sanitation and hygiene gaps because the cholera outbreak that hit our city the hardest is not yet over. If it erupts here or in any other congested camp, many will perish,” she warns.
Grace, a global health expert seen volunteering at the camp, dials up the call for urgent WASH support.
“We need gumboots, gloves and mops for cleaners to avert the looming public health crisis,” she states. “Here, people scramble for few latrines because many have been vandalised. As a result, they are overwhelmed and unsanitary, yet some volunteers who clean them wear mere sandals because they have no personal protective equipment.”