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Squaring up against floods

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Thundering clouds, followed by heavy persistent down pours, rapidly rising water in rivers and similarly dramatic rescues in the middle of the night are tales from floods survivors in flood-prone districts of Malawi.

Homes swept away like matchsticks, vast plains turned to mud, fields of precious crops drowned.

Villagers speak of climbing up anthills or trees and waiting for three days without food or water, drenched in rain and fearing attack by crocodiles.

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Families describe how they have lost everything.

Rescue workers tell of seeing children swept to their deaths and picking up floating backpacks only to discover corpses attached. Nearly three weeks on, the death toll remains unclear and not everyone is accounted for.

Those living in grass-thatched houses, say the first signs of trouble is the noise of reptiles chasing each other in the roof, and secondly a persistently buzzing phone.

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“The house is being submerged by water,” the caller announces and further shouts: “Please come here quickly to help rescue children and properties.”

Beatrice Chimombo recalls how the conversation went through with her late sister Patricia Mwenefumbo.

The community did not manage to rescue much as houses collapsed while crops and livestock were washed away and four lives including two children got lost to floods in January 2015.

Chimombo an inhabitant of Kela village in Traditional Authority Mponda in Mangochi narrates that hundreds of people were left destitute and hopeless with many today still having devastating memories of the floods.

The area is part of a huge low land along Lake Malawi where it is difficult for people to move to upland places that are kilometres away from the beautiful beaches.

Instead, members of the community in Group Village head Michesi have today taken steps to reduce the harm caused by flooding.

The community mobilised themselves and started heaping sand and bricks for construction of an emergency evacuation centre. They say floods, big or small, have devastating effects on people’s lives.

“We lost lives through painful death and some bodies have not been discovered yet. Now my people are preparing for floods, they want to stay safe during floods and protect their properties,” said Michesi.

These evacuation centres will also lessen the tendency that the internally displaced persons (IDPs) have in occupying school blocks when floods occur.

First having experienced the ordeal which the community went through, Yunusu Makunganya was persuaded to move in and teach his fellow inhabitants about forest management.

Makunganya said the community plants at least 15,000 tree seedlings every year as part of reducing the harm that comes with flooding.

Since the devastating floods in early 2015, the community has been working together with several organisations in finding mitigating factors to the cause of such calamities, Makunganya said.

Because of their efforts, he said, the idea of constructing the emergency evacuation centre got the attention of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The UN agency in collaboration with the Chinese government later came in with a direct financial assistance package of K36 million to aid the construction of the evacuation centre that will accommodate 120 people at once.

The infrastructure comprises 14 bathrooms, eight toilets, kitchen and a borehole among other facilities.

Community Initiative Based Organisation (Cibo) Executive Director Robert Elliot said the evacuation centre is purely a community initiative.

“When the area is hit by floods, people are crowded in schools, mosques and churches, which disturbs classes and prayers,” Elliot said, adding that with the construction of the centre things will now be different all together when floods occur.

He expressed his appreciation for the financial support the community received from UNDP and the Chinese government.

“This is the first UNDP-China government direct intervention to our community that would see residents of Michesi area to have a safe haven during disasters,” said Elliot.

He said if they manage to get further financial assistance, the centre will have blankets and buckets that will be used by IDPs.

Apart from the evacuation centre, the community is constructing dykes to control the flow of water and reduce the impact of floods.

Disasters such as floods are forces of nature which TA Mponda said cannot be stopped from happening.

“But we can act to prevent the deaths, hardship and economic damage these catastrophes can cause,” he said.

He noted that it is rare to have warnings of impending floods, which he said would be key in helping them to plan.

“As we live in areas prone to floods, we need to plan how to protect our communities,” he said.

Recommendations of having such centres in villages such as Matubi, Mponda, Namiyasi and Chesaiti-Ngabe that are prone to floods were viewed as vital but financial constraints has made the communities not to see the realisation of such dreams.

“Staying in classroom blocks is the first thing one regrets,” said Mponda, adding that such places are likely to cause outbreaks due to insufficient sanitation facilities.

In the 2015 disasters, there were outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases, while people without shelter were at greater risk of malaria.

Roughly 200 camps for displaced people sprung up.

The Office of the Vice President disclosed that the Chinese Government through UNDP awarded some small grants to six community based organisations (CBOs) and Civil Protection Committees in disaster prone districts who are involved in community based disaster risk reduction to construct evacuation centres for internally displaced people.

The money was also to be spent on construction of dykes to control the flow of water.

According to Communications Officer for the Department of Disaster Management Affairs in the Office of the Vice President Jeremiah Mpande, the project is worth $900,000 and goes towards disaster risk management.

Mpande said the project is being implemented under the trilateral cooperation among the UNDP, the Government of China and Malawi Government.

The trilateral Cooperation is a component of China-Africa -UNDP Cooperation Umbrella Programme which started in 2013.

UNDP and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2010 on broad framework for collaboration among countries of the South in the political, cultural, environmental and technical domains making China to dominate as major donor over the past decade contributing a total of USD 14.41Billion between 2010 and 2012.

According to the Malawi 2015 Floods Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) report which President Mutharika launched last week, the floods exacted damages and losses estimated at $335 million.

The report says the housing sector suffered the highest damage calculated at US$ 136.4 million.

The damage for the agriculture sector is calculated at the cost $54.4 million while losses in the transport and water and sanitation sector are pegged at $50.4 million and $18.9 million.

The floods affected 1,101,364 people, displaced 230,000 people and killed 106 people with another 172 people reported missing, according to the report.

Of the 15 districts that were hit, four of them had poverty incidences ranging between 55 and 80 percent, above the national average of 50.7 percent, according to the report.

So far about four CBOs were given the funds and the construction of these safe havens is underway in Mangochi.

This follows reports indicating that this rainy season, Malawi may experience heavy down pours that may cause flooding in some parts of the country.

Since the 2015 floods, government has been working alongside the UN and NGOs on recovery efforts.

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