Early warning saves lives

First came the rains and it rained non-stop for three days, giving farmers a false promise of a bumper harvest. The persistent rains left Phalombe River, almost a kilometre away from Tereza Kondwani’s home, swelling.

Then came a message from a village crier on March 5 around 6pm.

“It was a warning that Phalombe River was rising at an alarming rate,” recalls the mother-of-five from group village head (GVH) Chaweza in Zomba, which was hit hard by floods that affected almost 869 00 people and displaced 87 000 in 15 districts on the southern part of the country.

Mangwiro explains how the river gauges work

The village criers visited all parts of the village too close to the river. In the remote setting, Kondwani and her neighbours live in houses mostly made of sun-baked bricks bound together with mud.

Looking back to March 7, she states: “It was around 9pm, we were surprised when we discovered that the houses were actually in water. The floods were rising.

“I opened the door to see the situation outside, but I was welcomed by heavy floods. In the vicinity, a kitchen had collapsed.”

Kondwani and her husband rushed back into the house to rescue the children as the house dissolved into the floods. There was no time to save their possessions.

 “Everything was gone. We just had to go to seek refuge elsewhere,” she narrates.

The homeless family and its neighbours escaped to Mwaiwathu Primary School where they lived for almost three months. Life in the congested, unsanitary evacuation camp was hard for them, they say.

The family is among 5 686 households in T/A Mwambo’s area, Zomba, reached by Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS) flood response project. The needy households received kitchen utensils, mats, soap and other accessories to help them rebuild. Selected women received dignity kits, each containing 10 reusable sanitary pads, two undergarments and one wrapper.

This is part of a K2.2 billion initiative by MRCS, which lessens the suffering of people in humanitarian crises, being implemented in all affected districts since April. It was funded by the European Union Humanitarian Aid, UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), The Netherlands Red Cross, Belgian Red Cross, Swiss Red Cross, Danish Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

MRCS started working in GVH Chaweza since the devastating floods of 2015 killed nine people in the village. It   has equipped the locals with skills to mitigate the impact of disasters.

MRCS has also trained volunteers in early warning systems to avoid a repeat of the disaster that hit the Southern Region four years ago.

 “MRCS has installed river gauges on Phalombe River and the community was trained on how they can measure the water level to forecast water-related disasters,” says Prince Joseph Malema, the society’s district coordinator in Zomba.

Joseph Mangwiro, chairperson of the early warning system committee in Chaweza, says the river gauges helped save people’s lives when the river burst its banks in March.

“Most often, flooding comes without a warning but when MRCS gave us the river gauges, it was as if we had a warning from the river itself,” he says.

From March 5 to 8, the committee kept monitoring the swelling river.  In GVH Chaweza, five volunteers monitor the water levels on the river gauge. The team was trained to interpret the readings and generate early-warning messages. When the readings are bleak, they alert traditional leaders to deploy messengers to warn their people in lower communities of potential flooding. There are similar river gauges in Phalombe District where MRCS is also working. There is, therefore, communication each time the rains are likely to turn disastrous. 

When flooding looked imminent, they immediately warned people to run to the school which serves as a community evacuation centre since it is located on a higher ground.

This time, no life was lost.

According to Malema, the success of the project mostly rests on community involvement.

He says: “By training the people living in the flood-prone communities and establishing committees right there, we have seen that the teams are able to issue early warnings which are relevant to their areas,” he says.

Unlike in 2015, GVH Chaweza residents suffered a less horrifying damage in the recent floods which killed 56 people nationwide.

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