Putting children and communities at the heart of disaster risk management

Disaster management

By Rebecca Phwitiko
Three-year-old Lincy cries as her mother prepares a meal at Chagambatuka Primary School, their temporary shelter in Chikwawa
UNICEF Malawi/2020/AmosGumulira
11 December 2020

In many rural Malawian communities, the elders have their age-old ways of predicting the weather. Grandparents will advise children not to stay out because it will rain in a few hours, for instance. They will even go as far as predicting the rain pattern in an upcoming rainy season. They say, by watching the behavior of ants leaving a hole in large numbers, crows laying eggs in October or November or just from a bountiful mango season they can tell whether there will be drought or flooding.

At an orientation for District Relief and Rehabilitation Officers, experts told the newly recruited officers that both indigenous and scientific early warning systems must be respected to save lives. The scientific early warning system predicted below rainfall in 2015, a year when Malawi experienced heavy rain and floods. And the elders’ predictions are not always accurate. The message to the new officers who are responsible for disaster risk planning was that community involvement is key in disaster risk management programmes.

UNICEF supported the training of the new officers who will manage emergency preparedness and response programmes and help build a culture of safety for all- including children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

Changing trends in disaster incidents and management

Lately, there is either too little or too much rain in some part of Malawi. The most recent floods swept through southern Malawi in March 2019, displacing about 95,000 families, including an estimated 460,000 children. They lacked basic supplies like food, water and access to toilets. Schools were damaged disrupting learning for thousands of children as affected families sought shelter in classrooms. For three months, three-year-old Lincy and her family lived at Chagambatuka primary school in Chikwawa district, forced to co-habit with strangers in a crowded environment.

Commissioner James Chiusiwa who heads Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs notes that the country has been experiencing an increasing frequency and magnitude of disasters in recent years. Floods, drought, army worms come with great cost including loss of life and damage to property.

 “We have also seen an increase in urban disasters as people construct houses in the path of drainage routes. We therefore must support city and municipality councils to minimize the risk of such disasters, just as we are doing with district/rural councils,” adds Chiusiwa.

Commissioner James Chiusiwa of the Department of Disaster Management Affairs
UNICEF Malawi/2020/RebeccaPhwitiko
Commissioner James Chiusiwa of the Department of Disaster Management Affairs

Since the early 2000s, there has been a shift in disaster response initiatives. From responding to “disaster events” the focus is now on addressing disaster risks, to enable communities prepare for disasters and reduce the risk of disaster over time.

“In the past, officers assigned to manage disaster response activities in the districts were only involved at the time disasters struck. But now that we have dedicated officers throughout the disaster management cycle, they will lead district preparedness, response and recovery efforts,” explains Commissioner Chiusiwa

Children at the center of humanitarian interventions.

A key component of the training for the relief and rehabilitation officers is UNICEF’s Core Commitments for Children which highlight what children require in a humanitarian situation and what interventions are required to save lives or support children affected by various disasters.

“Whenever and wherever disasters strike, children are at least half of the affected population. By incorporating the Core Commitments for Children in Disaster Risk Management, we are ensuring that elements of the CCCs are well resourced as they are integrated in the national plan,” explains UNICEF Malawi’s Emergency Specialist Estere Tsoka.

UNICEF is also supporting the Department of Disaster Management Affairs and the Ministry of Education to roll out disaster risk management materials for school children. Through these materials, with potential to reach millions of children in school, children will be engaged at a young age and will have a better understanding of the risks of disaster and their role in reducing these risks.