Malawi prepared for disasters?

How ready and empowered are communities in Malawi to respond when natural disasters befall them? Ephraim Nyondo finds out.

The song of natural disasters in Malawi is old, yet classic. Whenever it is sung, it sounds as if it is newly composed.

Yes, it is a song with different verses.

A verse about earthquakes and tremors in Karonga and Chitipa districts. Another about hailstorms in Salima district. Yet another about floods and droughts in the Lower Shire districts of Chikhwawa and Nsanje.

However, all these verses unite on a common chorus of death, displacement, disease and destruction.

Natural disasters, by their virtue, cannot be stopped.

In fact, judging by their tenacity, it would not be an understatement to conclude that we cannot stop them.

Take floods in Nsanje and Chikhwawa district’s, for example.

Recorded flood events date as far back as 1942, when severe floods were experienced there.

In 1956, floods also affected the Lower Shire Valley. The latest flood disasters occurred in 1997, 2001, 2003 and 2006.

The 1997 floods damaged the Bangula-Chiromo Railway Line in Nsanje, in addition to the usual damage of crops and houses. The 2001 floods affected almost all flood prone areas in the country and they were all declared disaster areas.

In the Lower Shire alone, over 110 000 families were affected by the devastating floods that occurred when the Shire River banks burst after heavy rainfall.

Hundreds of thousands of homes were lost, thousands of livestock killed, and many crops ruined. Five people were killed by the floods and another 20 died from cholera.

The 2006 floods, caused by bursting of the Ruo River and Shire River banks after heavy rainfall, affected 34 678 households with 1 794 houses destroyed, 24 032 hectares of crops washed away, and three culverts in Nsanje destroyed.

The whole Lower Shire lacked clean water and, coupled with sanitation problems, there were reports of cholera cases in the area.

This year alone, over 6 000 people are living in camps in Malawi, including over 3 500 children, as a result of severe flooding following prolonged heavy rainfall and a cyclone that hit neighbouring Mozambique.

As we approach the rainy season, chances of floods in these areas are high.

However, the task Malawi has is not necessarily to stop these natural disasters. Rather, it is to minimise the infliction they cause on humanity.

Maynard Nyirenda, executive director of Sustainable Rural Growth and Development Initiative (SRGDI), says Malawi is not prepared for disaster.

“If you look at the case studies of Karonga floods of 2011, it shows that we don’t have enough resources to act in times of disaster. If we are not prepared, we cannot save lives,” he says.

Nyirenda’s argument augurs well with insights raised by Martin Mazinga, national coordinator of Catholic Development Commission (Cadecom).

“The challenge we have is that our national approaches have always been reactive than pro-active to the disasters,” he says.

He adds that disaster management is coordinated from the central government in Lilongwe, and the communities are not empowered enough to respond.

“What this means is that we wait for the disaster to strike, then, the officials from Lilongwe should start to organise the response system,” he says.

This is probably why Cadecom has started working to empower communities in disaster prone areas to help them take primary steps in the management of disaster reduction so that the effects are minimised.

In the Lower Shire, Cadecom is working with area civil liberties committee (ACLC). These are village-based committees that are spearheading, not just a response system to natural disasters but are also raising awareness on how to prevent destruction of lives and properties when disaster strikes.

One of the committees Cadecom is working with is Ndakwera ACPC from Ndakwera Village in Traditional Authority Ndakwera, which is located an hour’s drive from Nchalo, Chikhwawa.

“We hold regular meetings within the village on issues of minimising effects of natural disasters on our lives and property,” says Chrissie Solomon, vice-chairperson of the committee.

Apart from droughts that hit the village every year, Ndakwera has also seen the fury of floods in her area.

“After discussing the alert systems using our traditional wisdom, we raise awareness to the masses through civic education.

“For instance, when there are so many ants in the village, we know that floods will appear. As a result, we warn those living close to the river basin to move upland,” she says.

However, despite their efforts, these committees are not that much empowered.

“There is a great disconnect between us in the village and government officials at the boma. There have been several times when we have proposed to them to help improve our capacity of managing disasters but they tell us they don’t have money,” she says.

Solomon gave an example of an incident of cholera that happened in her village two years ago.

“The floods washed away the village, which were followed by a cholera outbreak. As a community, we built a shack to shelter those affected. But after we informed the officials at the district, they took long to respond. We ended up losing our dear friends and relatives,” she says.

However, government has started to beef up the District Commissioner’s Office in disaster prone districts with a Disaster Management Office.

But although it appears a good deal, there is still a bigger challenge of financing disaster management department.

“One of the reasons the department is always reactive is because it does not have a special allocation in the budget so that response system should not take time,” says Mazinga.

This is the reason Nyirenda adds that to effectively manage disasters, Malawi needs to have a special fund with which it can pool together resources to counter disasters.

“There should be a special fund deliberately put in place for disaster preparation. We are talking about building resilience, which includes how people build houses and not just shifting them to new areas,” he

says.

He adds that this should be government’s responsibility, not just waiting for donors.

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