Washed Away: Malawi after the Floods

By Kainja, Jimmy | New African, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Washed Away: Malawi after the Floods


Kainja, Jimmy, New African


The response by the government and NGOs to Malawi's recent devastating floods was swift. Unfortunately, preparedness for the flooding was inadequate and, as Jimmy Kainja explains, no one is asking the tough questions that could lead to future disasters being better managed.

From late December to mid-January 2015, heavy rains resulted in the worst floods in Malawi's recent history. Predictably, the lowlands of the southern and eastern regions were most affected.

Some districts, like Chikwawa and Nsanje, are prone to flooding but were overwhelmed by the scale of the rain, which fell non-stop for four consecutive days. Figures from the Malawian government and Unicef show that the floods have so far killed 176 people, 130,000 people are homeless and 645 have been injured, while others are missing.

The government's response was swift. President Peter Mutharika quickly declared the floods a national disaster and over half of the country's 18 districts disaster zones. The move enabled the early mobilisation of resources, with rescue teams and relief items dispatched to the affected areas. The NGO response too, both local and international, was decisive and swift.

Praise for the prompt response should be tempered with criticism for unpreparedness. The floods were not a surprise. The worst-affected districts are flood-prone, and the rains were forecast in advance. Safety measures could have been more firmly in place.

But the government only has a draft policy on natural disaster response to guide the Department of Disaster Management Affairs' operations. In January, Mutharika admitted that Malawi needed a new policy as what was in place was insufficient.

This failing contributed to the casualty levels and costs of these floods. Laws and policies are only as good as government's willingness to implement them. The department responsible for disasters was ill-equipped and unprepared to act with the necessary efficiency when it mattered. The 2014/15 national budget allocation to the department is not publicly available; efforts to access it have been fruitless.

Funding and personnel are needed to strengthen the department. Changes in weather patterns may have been an important contributing factor, which means such floods could become more regular.

The number of casualties, images of destroyed property, crops and the faces of the destitute are always crucial in determining the attention level of disasters.

The sympathy aroused attracts humanitarian aid and media attention. The details give a sense of the horrific drama to news stories, both print and broadcast. The floods caught the attention of international media organisations that would otherwise have little interest in Malawi. But the devastation caused by these floods will be felt long after they have dried up, and media crews have departed with their flashing cameras.

By President Mutharika's account, Malawi will face substantial food shortages this year. The floods washed away approximately 64,000 hectares of food crops, according to Unicef Malawi. …

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