Struggling to kindle a fire on the wet veranda of her leaky grass-thatched hut, Christina Sitenala, a resident of Chipondeni Village, T/A Mlolo in Nsanje sums up her dilemma as “nyatwainango”. According to locals, the Chisena catchphrase means “another misfortune of no mean proportion”.
Evidently, her loss sounds no less.
“All the goats, chicken, crops and some utensils have been washed away by angry waters from Thangadzi River. My grandchildren and I are sleeping outside because nobody knows when the floods will come back to destroy the house,” says the woman.
Yet, that is not all Sitenala has to surmount. Here, domestic problems have been overshadowed by collective fears for Muona Rice Scheme where her plot is overflowing with water.
The Shire Valley’s chronic floods has its immediate aftermath. The plight of the poor and their resistance to move upland usually gets more attention.
Less documented is the economics of the humanitarian crisis, especially how decision-makers have let down vulnerable communities.
Counting the losses, committees responsible for disasters in T/A Mlolo estimate that about 4 900 households were affected by three weeks of flooding, 493 houses destroyed and 1 097 on the verge of collapsing. This cannot be underrated since a UN inter-agency assessment indicates 53 000 people are affected in the Southern Region.
Also in the flurry of figures were toilets, wells, schools, livestock, crops and nearly all pillars of life in the Nsanje North locality now dotted with houses made of sunburnt bricks. For most of the rural residents, their capacity to cope with such devastating eventualities is restricted to farming and domestic animals which also suffered the setback.
Muona Rice Scheme, refurbished by the State-run Irrigation, Rural Livelihoods and Agricultural Development (Irlad), benefits about 2 000 people in the neighbourhood and beyond.
“The disaster could be a blessing for farmers because rice does well in waterlogged conditions,” says Makhanga agriculture extension and development officer Epmack Muna.
However, the growers are worried because the canals are filled with sand, leaving the scheme dry in the absence of floods. In a glaring example of everything to avoid when constructing water channels in flood–prone areas, the canals comprise a concrete floor and muddy walls.
Add or subtract its disastrous make, the water path mirrors massive siltation besetting Thangadzi and a bund constructed to safeguard the farming community from the river’s overflow. The flattened dyke cannot curb the water spills.
“Floods were under control when ActionAid constructed the bund about five years ago. Now we are suffering because the river has no defined path,” says village development committee chairperson Kandiado Kashupali.
To Nsanje district disaster management officer Humphreys Magalasi, the river’s siltation is a result of uncurbed soil erosion due to deforestation in the upland of Thyolo.
“Negotiations are underway with upland districts on how we can reduce environmental degradation to save the communities downstream,” says Magalasi.
Meanwhile, encounters with flood victims is an endless cry for foodstuffs, household utensils, water purification chemicals as well as building materials for temporary shelters, toilets and bathrooms.
Muna, who also heads Mlolo area civil protection committee (ACPC), says 112 villages under group village heads Chipondeni, Mchacha James, Osiyana, Kalonga Gooke, Sambani and Chipinga need relief.
“Nearly half of Mlolo residents need urgent relief items to cope with the immediate aftermaths of the floods. However, there is need for farm inputs, such as seed, fertiliser and irrigation equipment, so that the flood victims can replant,” he says.
T/A Mlolo says he has lost count of his area‘s population “because the official register was washed away by floods last year”.
Random interviews show an opinion is gaining momentum among the survivors that reinforcing self-help initiatives, including irrigation farming, is the way to go. They feel relief items portray the flood victims as beggars who cling to risky areas to get handouts from well-wishers.
After visiting some affected communities, Nsanje North Member of Parliament Frank Viyazyi told The Nation that his constituents are poorer after receiving goods worth an unprecedented K4 million last year.
“Assessments show people lost goods worth K3 million and they received items worth about K4 million. However, they are not well off because most of the donations were foodstuffs and other accessories addressing short term needs,” says Viyazyi.
The decried trend is haunting residents of Mchacha James, one of the group village heads who signed a memorandum of understanding with government to relocate.
While some are still searching for land, those that moved to uplands near Osiyana are going back to risky stretches due to lack of clean water, clinics, schools and other basic facilities. The area has only one borehole which was built by Red Cross Society.
“People are willing to relocate, but they end up returning to risky areas because they feel let down by government and other organisations who think our problems can be solved by relief items alone,” says village head Nkhandwe, whose people shifted in January last year.
Other clusters that are reverting to Mchacha James include Nduna, Mulanga, Kayifa and Chatayika.
Although they wanted their children to be in class, learning at Chikale was interrupted by floods. Equally stranded are pupils at Namanya Primary School.
As Good Samaritans continue to scratch off the itching spot, the flood victims hope the run-off will bring a better harvest if they get requisite inputs.
They point to overgrown Makhanga Maize Scheme—across the pools of Tchereni where boat owners are cashing in on deteriorating road conditions—as their food basket come March. That way, they can offset their vulnerability as their income is dwindling because fewer people are growing the valley’s major cash crop, cotton.