In January 2006, heavy rains killed 18 people in Mozambique and caused damage in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Malawi [EPA]

From January through March every year, flood waters threaten the inhabitants of Malawi's Lower Shire valley with loss of life and property.

In late February, six people died in the Chikwawa district in the valley. Some 16 villages were severely affected and over 10,000 displaced persons are being accommodated in five camps scattered across the district.

In the neighbouring district of Nsanje about 40km south of Chikwawa, 2,000 people have been left homeless and an estimated 3,436 hectares of crops have been destroyed.

Spy Alufisha, a farmer from Nsanje, says his family has been struggling to live with the annual flooding for decades.

"We have lost both property and crops. Others think that our major aim - is to benefit from hand outs during this time of the year - but that is not the case. These have been our ancestral lands since time immemorial," he said.

Alufisha says the floods have been an impediment for a majority of the people in this region who survive on their crops and the regional agriculture, the mainstay of the country's economy.

Climate change

Farmers in southern Africa say flooding
is threatening their crops and livelihood
 
In September 2007, climate scientists from southern Africa meeting in Lesotho's capital Maseru predicted that parts of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) will experience above average rainfall putting all low lying areas in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia in danger of severe flooding.

The seasonal forecasts generated through the Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SARCOF), a grouping of climate scientists from the entire southern Africa region, have become an important planning tool for disaster preparedness.

Experts attribute the problem facing the Lower Shire to be climate-related.

They argue that deforestation and massive environmental degradation has resulted in reduced forest cover that protects the environment from direct rain drops, resulting in severe deep gullies being created.

Alic Kafasalire, an expert on the environment who has spent years working in the field of natural resources management in Malawi, says deforestation is a major concern.

"The loss of rich natural catchment protection - to secure rivers banks and ensure that water sinks in the soil - is related to climate change and is a challenge. This was aggravated in 1980 and in the 1990's when people misinterpreted democracy, as meaning they can wantonly cut down trees mercilessly," she told Al Jazeera.

Moving upland

Meanwhile, during a recent visit to the Lower Shire area, Bingu wa Mutharika, the president of Malawi, urged victims to relocate to safe areas. He also advised residents to utilise the flood-prone areas for farming.

"Moving upland would secure your lives while you could use the flooded areas for farming after the floods. So you would benefit from two worlds," Mutharika told flood victims in Chikwawa.

But in the Dzimphutsi area in Chikwawa about 74km south of Blantyre, the commercial capital, the floods bring with them another danger - water-borne diseases like cholera.

All the water collected from Shire highlands accumulates here and submerges the entire area. As a result, the livelihoods of the local populace is severely affected, communications hampered and strategic operations brought to a standstill.

Harnessing floodwater

In pictures

Mozambique struggles against floods

In the wake of such developments, the Malawi government and the SADC regional water sector programme have signed an agreement to harness floodwater by way of irrigation, fish farming, livestock production and flood control.

The initiative will carry out a feasibility study towards the use of floodwater for dry-land agricultural production and increasing food security. These will possibly include the construction of a small-scale dam on the Mkuzi stream near Dzimphutsi to trap floodwater.

Through the support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), SADC's Water Division has initiated four other demonstration projects at a regional level. Four of these demonstration projects are in the Zambezi basin countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

The idea is to demonstrate that water – including "problem water" - can be managed and developed in a manner that maximises the economic and social welfare without compromising the environment.

"The Dzimphutsi project - which is benefiting a population of approximately 6,000 people - primarily focuses on improving people's livelihoods through the integrated use of floodwater for crop production, animal husbandry, domestic use and environmental protection," says Sidney Mainala, the director of water resources in Malawi.

This is in line with the principles of integrated water resources management (IWRM), an approach for managing water resources that was endorsed by SADC member states including Malawi.

Convincing decision-makers

The initiative in Malawi is part of SADC's efforts to foster awareness to ensure that senior decision-makers in all sectors and the media are aware of key aspects of IWRM and its relevance to social and economic development in the SADC region.

The idea is to change the mindset and encourage flood waters to be managed and put to good use.

Hastings Chikoko, the component manager of SADC, told Al Jazeera that the focus will be on projects that have a direct positive effect on people's livelihood.

"The purpose is to demonstrate the positive effects of applying IWRM principles in practical water management. A key element of the projects must by the involvement of beneficiaries' rights from the project design and throughout implementation and monitoring," he said.

Chikoko urges that such participatory approaches between decision makers and communities be used as a tool to sort these perennial problems.

He said that only through such methods can flooding problems facing people in the lower shire valley and other parts of southern Africa be resolved.

But for flood victims like Alufisha, such programmes tailored at rescuing people in flood prone areas may be long overdue.

Source: Al Jazeera