Malawi floods expose need to step up disaster prevention

by Karen Sanje | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 29 January 2015 10:01 GMT

People cross a flooded drain in Ndirande, an upland township in the city of Blantyre, Malawi. TRF/Karen Sanje

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Malawi has drafted a new policy to manage disaster risk, a key priority as it struggles to cope with floods

LILONGWE, Malawi, Jan 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malawi's government is considering how it can better prevent climate-linked disasters, after massive flooding took authorities by surprise this month.

Severe floods across 15 of the country's 28 districts, caused by above-normal rains, have killed 79 people and left 153 missing, according to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA).

Some 638,000 people have been affected, including around 174,000 displaced after their homes were destroyed, and $81 million is needed to provide food, shelter and other aid, President Peter Mutharika said this week.

Tamani Nkhono-Mvula, executive director of the Civil Society Agriculture Network (CISANET), said the floods should be "looked at within the climate change discourse".

"The late onset of the rains, and their heaviness, are a clear sign that the climate is changing, and we need to come up with programmes that will respond to this," Nkhono-Mvula said by email.

Paul Chiunguzeni, principal secretary and commissioner for the DoDMA, said the need for a legal framework enabling Malawi to handle a wide range of disasters has grown, but the emphasis so far has been on response.

The cabinet will soon consider a new draft policy on managing disaster risk, he said.

The country's 1991 Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act - now under review - was introduced after the Phalombe disaster, when flash floods on Mulanje Mountain killed scores of people. Its main focus is on post-disaster relief, Chiunguzeni said.

"Over the years, not only in Malawi but worldwide, the new thinking is that we should not only react but be proactive," he said by telephone.

"So we have to put in place measures designed to do preparedness, response itself and later on recovery, because once a disaster strikes you have to try as much as possible to bring the affected communities (back) to ... where they were."

EARLY WARNING

President Mutharika last week highlighted the need for Malawi to quickly put in place a natural disaster policy when he visited camps sheltering people displaced by the floods. Aid agencies have supported such a move.

"The policy should necessitate amending the current act, because it falls short on a number of issues regarding how disasters should be handled," Chiunguzeni said.

"We should have in place measures to prevent disasters, unless they are really those that cannot be predicted like earthquakes. And in the event that they happen, we should have measures ... regarding how we respond and manage the aftermath," he added.

Once approved, the new policy should mandate aid organisations to mainstream disaster prevention in their activities "as is the case with messages about HIV and AIDS", Chiunguzeni said.

His department has already stationed staff in 14 districts to coordinate disaster risk management activities, and has worked with the education ministry to introduce the topic into the school curriculum, according to a recent report on the country's disaster strategy.

The government has also begun a four-year programme to strengthen early warning systems, it said.

DEFORESTATION

Chiunguzeni highlighted the need to tackle deforestation in upland areas, after the cities of Blantyre and Zomba experienced flash floods this month due to trees being cut down on surrounding hills.

The floods killed several people, and damaged homes and other property.

In Blantyre, flash floods barrelled down the deforested Ndirande Mountain and Soche Hill, wreaking havoc on the densely populated townships of Ndirande and Chilobwe. In Zomba, floods originating from Zomba Mountain caused destruction in nearby townships, with Matawale the worst affected.

"The level of deforestation has contributed to the increased level of impact of the disasters," said CISANET's Nkhono-Mvula.

"We need ... stringent regulations to protect the environment, especially trees. The government should put in place and spearhead a national reafforestation programme," he added.

Forests limit water runoff by helping soak up rain and stabilise the soil, lessening the ferocity of floods, Chiunguzeni said.

Although the water was receding, more rain was forecast, the Red Cross warned on Monday, issuing an aid appeal for 2.6 million Swiss francs ($2.87 million) to help 42,000 people.

Long-term support, including the reduction of disaster risk, was critical, the aid agency added.

"Without it, Malawi will face permanent disaster," Michael Charles, southern Africa representative for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Karen Sanje; editing by Megan Rowling)

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