Storm horror leaves thousands at risk of disease

Cry for help after Tropical Storm Ana

James Chavula
Sarah Bakali with her last-born child at Kanseche Camp in Chikwawa
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Chavula
22 February 2022

Sarah Bakali, 31, agonizes about the night she lost her daughter, Abigail, 4, to the flood waters that destroyed her village.

After fleeing her house, she struggled to hoist her 1-year-old baby on her back, and Abigail onto her shoulders, before trying to cross the crocodile-infested Mwanza River in Chikwawa District.

“Then I slipped into deep waters and the surge washed her away. That was the last time I saw her. She's too young to swim," Bakali says, crying at the memory.

Abigail is one of three missing persons from the village, where flooding triggered by tropical storm Ana destroyed 520 homes, leaving only a few abandoned structures standing, their roofs washed away.

More than 2,000 people have taken shelter at a nearby camp with only one latrine and a single borehole. The displaced population includes more than 800 children.

Some of the 480 displaced children aged under five at kanseche Camp in Chikwawa
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Chavula
Some of the 480 displaced children aged under five at kanseche Camp in Chikwawa

The lack of clean water and sanitation services leaves Bakali concerned for the health and well-being of her surviving children. During normal times, diarrhea still kills 7 per cent of Malawian children before they reach their fifth birthdays.

"I cannot wait to leave the camp,” says the mother of five. “But I have no home to return to. I lost everything. I cannot go back to the village.”

Camp secretary Pilirani Mailosi says the displaced community is increasingly at risk from waterborne and sanitation-related diseases, especially diarrhoea which has become widespread.

"The pit latrine has been overwhelmed. It emits a foul smell. We are recording 20 to 25 diarrhea cases every day, mostly children," he says. 

Mailosi, who sits on the village civil protection committee, says the displaced community requires at least 20 latrines.

One of the few homes still standing in Kanseche Village, where floods caused by Cyclone Ana displaced everyone, with 2380 now living at a congested camp with a single latrine and fierce scrambles for water.
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Chavula
One of the few homes still standing in Kanseche Village, where floods caused by Cyclone Ana displaced everyone, with 2380 now living at a congested camp with a single latrine and fierce scrambles for water.

"We need urgent assistance, especially food, safe water, sanitation, hygiene and dry land where we can live safely, he says. “We have agreed never to return to the low-lying village where flooding has become more frequent and severe in the last few years.”

However, relief isn’t arriving fast enough. The camps only received its first consignment of aid a week after the tragedy struck. It included 100 bags of maize flour, 160 buckets and soap.

Some at the isolated camp believe they have been ignored as relief efforts have concentrated along paved roads.

UNICEF is working with the Government of Malawi to provide emergency relief to children in affected communities. The relief is focusing mainly on WASH, nutrition, education, child protection and health.

UNICEF Emergency Specialist Estere tsoka in Bereu, Chikwawa district
UNICEF Malawi/2022/HomelineMedia
UNICEF Emergency Specialist Estere tsoka in Bereu, Chikwawa district

Estere Tsoka, UNICEF emergency specialist, says the UN children’s agency has provided WASH supplies to Chikwawa and Nsanje, in the worst-hit Shire Valley at the country's southern tip, including latrines and enough water treatment chemicals for 15,000 people.

"The rains and floods have created great need among the local community,” says Tsoka. “For example, we need for active surveillance for disease outbreaks so that control measures can be taken.”

"We also need to ensure that affected people can access safe water and sanitation, in places where some facilities were destroyed, and where displaced people are seeking shelter.”

Tsoka said emergency support was required to access nutritious food and avert potential malnutrition among children.

UNICEF is appealing for US$8 million to meet the immediate and medium-term needs of children and women in affected areas.

Malawi's Department of Disaster Management Affairs says the three-day tropical storm displaced 190,429 families, left 37 people dead and 20 missing.

Now Bakali, whose food supplies and fledging crops were buried in mud, can only afford a single meal a day for her baby and her three other school-going children.

"Losing my child has been devastating,” she says. “We need urgent support to stop this disaster from getting any worse.”