Thousands cut off from aid in disastrous Malawi floods

Aid organisations in Malawi struggle to locate communities stranded by ‘worst flooding in living memory’.

Malawi floods
Unprepared and low on supplies, aid organisations rush to reach the thousands of stranded flood victims [EPA]

Tchereni IDP camp, Phalombe, Malawi – One Sunday night in the middle of January, everything that Egifa Chimwaza owned was taken away from her. She lost her home, her only source of income, her possessions.

For two weeks she slept on the cold hard floor of a local school, without so much as a blanket to comfort her, surrounded by strangers who had also lost everything. She hasn’t had a meal for two days, and neither have her seven young children.

According to the UN, 174,000 people have been displaced by flooding [EPA]
According to the UN, 174,000 people have been displaced by flooding [EPA]

On January 11, the flooding reached Egifa’s home in the Phalombe district in the southeast of Malawi. The floodwaters overwhelmed her simple mud and brick house, its walls collapsing around her and her family.

They were forced to flee with only what they could carry, eventually taking refuge in the nearby Tcherini school with more than 600 others. Their crops of maize, soya beans, and peas were destroyed.

No food, no water

After almost three weeks, tents arrived providing some shelter, but by the end of January the majority of those staying in Tchereni had received no food aid.

Hundreds of camp residents sat dazed and helpless in the sun, despairing of food ever arriving.

“I’ve been here for two weeks,” said Egifa. “There has been no food delivery. Our only hope is that people like you can help.”

Some of those at Tchereni have survived by going out to work in fields that have escaped the worst of the flooding, where they earn a scant wage of 800 kwacha ($1.70) a day. This is enough to buy some maize from the nearest trading centre, a three-hour round-trip on foot.

A single borehole provides water for the camp, but it is not enough. Those who have bicycles, ride for up to two hours to bring water from another borehole. Others walk for five hours to bring water from the river.

Tchereni is far from being an isolated case.

“It’s symptomatic of most areas,” says Paul Kalilombe, district commissioner for Phalombe.

“I don’t think that there is any camp that has received everything they need. There have been some deliveries of maize, and some of that has been processed into flour. Some lucky ones have received some other products.”

According to the UN, 336,000 people have been displaced by the flooding, 104 killed, and 1.15 million affected by the destruction of agriculture, upon which 80 percent of the population relies.

The flooding is unprecedented. It's the first huge scale disaster Malawi has had since independence in 1964. We were able to mount a response within 72 hours, but not nearly enough to cope with the scale of what happened.

by Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF

Unforeseen disaster

Malawi suffers from flooding and food shortages every year, and aid supplies were in place to deal with this eventuality.

But government authorities and aid agencies were caught completely unaware by the scale and timing of the floods.

The rainy season in Malawi lasts from December to March, but the worst of the rains usually arrive in February. Even then, they are not nearly this severe.

“The timing of the problem has taken us by surprise,” says Kalilombe. “We were expecting flooding in February or March.”

“The flooding is unprecedented,” says Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF country director for Malawi.

“It’s the first huge scale disaster Malawi has had since independence in 1964. We were able to mount a response within 72 hours, but not nearly enough to cope with the scale of what happened.”

Un-coordinated aid

Aid efforts so far have been disjointed.

“The provision of aid is very sporadic and there’s a lack of coordination at the centre,” says Kalilombe.

“There’s been a concentration on Chikwawa and Nsanje and they’ve forgotten about Phalombe.”

A desperate race is now on to locate those in need and to distribute food and other essential items. But the obstacles to identifying those who need aid, securing that aid in sufficient quantities, and successfully distributing it to the many thousands stranded by the floods are immense.

“People ran in the middle of the night to the closest place they could stay,” says Mdoe.

“There are about 200 different sites ranging from 20 people to 2,000 people. There’s absolutely no organisation. If you bring in a bag of maize it’s gone in seconds.”

In theory, authorities at the district level are responsible for the coordination of aid, but it became quickly apparent that the crisis was too much to cope with at a local level.

“We didn’t have enough resources to deal with the situation,” admits Kalilombe.

The UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have stepped in at the invitation of the government to assess the scale of the disaster and help to coordinate food aid, and plans are being put in place.

Short supplies for lost victims

But even if those in need can be identified, securing food supplies at short notice is a huge challenge.

“The government is desperately trying to get grain from the rest of the country, but there needs to be money for that,” says Heather Campbell, country director of Concern Universal, which provides non-food items and water and sanitation services across five districts in southern Malawi.

“The harvest is not for another one to two months, so there’s not a lot of grain in the country. This is the hunger season.”

Attempts are being made to address the situation. The government of Malawi declared a State of Disaster on January 13, and has agreed to release 14,000 tonnes of maize from its Strategic Grain Reserve.

The World Food Programme is supplementing government food supplies, and the International Organisation for Migration and the Red Cross are working with the Ministry of Land and Housing and local authorities to try to plug the gaps in aid provision.

Donors have agreed to redirect funding.

“After the first three weeks there was a 40 percent funding gap, which is quite good,” says Mdoe. “Not much new funding has been received, but there has been flexibility by donors to redirect funding.”

But it is still not enough. The unprecedented scale of the crisis, a lack of available food, problems with the coordination of aid, difficulties of access and a shortage of finance have conspired to leave thousands cut off from even the most basic aid.

 Floods displace thousands in Malawi

“There are still big challenges in terms of access,” says Mdoe. “There are areas that can only be accessed by helicopter. There is still a fear that there are areas that are receiving less help than others.”

There is a grave danger that with the traditional flooding season still ahead, conditions could deteriorate further.

“With the peak of the rainy season in mid-February still ahead, soils already saturated and rivers running high, additional flooding and access challenges remain a concern, particularly for populations that have already been affected or displaced by the January floods,” says Baton Osmani, Malawi country director for WFP.

Having witnessed the tragedy of what was unfolding in Phalombe, The One Foundation, a UK-based philanthropic business that funds clean water programmes for communities in Malawi, stepped in alongside Irish Aid and local partners Concern Universal, to put plans in place to deliver emergency aid to Tchereni and nine other camps in the area.

“It is clear that some aid is getting through, but with such significant funding gaps and the challenges of aid distribution within the country, there are thousands of people still without access to the basics of shelter, food and water,” says Duncan Goose, founder and CEO of The One Foundation, who travelled from the UK to witness the effects of the flooding.

“The population is suffering and the government and international community need to step in now.”

For Egifa and thousands like her, such support cannot come soon enough.

Source: Al Jazeera