Downpour 'floods' NGO operations in Malawi

Flooded districts in Malawi are Nsanje, Chikwawa, Phalombe and Zomba. The overwhelming number of people in need of assistance is depleting aid groups’ prepositioned stocks. Photo by: GoogleMaps

The extent and severity of the current flooding in Malawi overwhelm relief organizations, which are struggling to respond in areas that aren’t normally prone to such natural disasters — and where they have no presence.

The most inundated districts are located in the lower regions of the country: Nsanje and Chikwawa in the southwest, and Phalombe and Zomba in southeastern Malawi. The total number of displaced people in these areas combined exceeded 70,000, according to initial estimates by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

But there are also areas near Lake Malombe and in the country’s northern regions, such as Karonga district, which have been affected by the deluge.

According to Dingiswayo Jere, humanitarian emergency affairs manager for World Vision Malawi, the nonstop downpour in Malawi over the past few days have led to massive flooding, an uncommon scenario this rainy season, particularly in the areas near Lower Shire Valley.

“We are and we have been prepared for emergencies and disasters, but I think our preparedness was really based on history, which means that within this period of time during the rainy season, we already know the areas that receive more than normal rainfall that result to people being displaced and some people being affected. There, we are prepared to provide shelter, food, some medical supplies. But I think as it happened now in Lower Shire, we have been so much overwhelmed,” he said.

It usually doesn’t take this long for rainwater to subside, Jere added, even in areas that are prone to flash floods. Aid officials also claim this has been the worst rains they’ve had in two decades.

An unusual downpour

The overwhelming number of people in need of assistance is depleting aid groups’ prepositioned stocks. World Vision for instance has called for additional support from its regional and global offices for replenishment of some of nonfood items like family tents, chlorine, blankets and mosquito nets, which are usually airlifted from its warehouse in Dubai.

Additional financial support in the amount of $1 million will help the country office buy more food locally, as well as medical supplies to treat people afflicted with waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery — the number of which has continued to multiply.

CARE, meanwhile, is coordinating with other players in the U.N.’s food security and agriculture cluster on how the food response will be carried out.

“It was decided that there’s food already in the country, and the food distribution plan supposed to be started in February — some of that food already in the country and actually already in the districts — would be used to assist the flood-affected populations,” Country Director Michael Rewald explained.

These food items, he noted, would be replaced so the people they are originally planned for would also get their distributions. But at present, these will be diverted to assist flood victims.

Food has been identified as one of the most urgent priorities according to a needs assessment in the country, and organizations in the food cluster are aware that distribution needs to happen as soon as possible, particularly in the hardest-hit areas of Nsanje and Chikwawa.

But CARE only has operations in the affected districts of Salima and Ntcheu and has no presence in Nsanje and Chikwawa. Rewald said his organization will start operations at least in Nsanje in the coming months, so he anticipates them to be involved in relief and recovery efforts in the area as well.

Access issues

On Tuesday, Malawi President Peter Mutharika declared 15 districts across the country under a state of disaster, and appealed for international assistance.

One of the areas the government has asked for help is in search and rescue operations.

While the government has deployed motorboats and army helicopters, evacuation of people has been challenging. Some of the rivers are too small for the large engine boats; the government meanwhile needs to better identify landing areas for the helicopters, or request for low-flying ones.

Both Jere and Rewald anticipate these bottlenecks would prove to be huge logistical challenges for their organizations’ aid delivery efforts as well. Land transport is almost out of the picture as most of the roads have already been cut off.

As such, aid groups’ response will most likely rely largely on outside support, which does seem to be coming in. This is despite the fact that no donor, as of yet, has publicly announced support for relief efforts on the ground.

Devex learned that the European Commission’s humanitarian arm, ECHO, is closely monitoring the situation, and several U.N. agencies have pledged to provide assistance. But there’s no decision yet on whether the United Nations, along with other humanitarian actors, will launch a consolidated appeal.

“I think they are still talking that over. We hope they do, but they have not decided on any,” Rewald said.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.