The Shire Valley: Malawi’s man-made or nature-inflicted humanitarian crisis? Part 2


By Richard Chirombo:

THERE IS GOLD IN FLOODS—An ‘entrepreneur’ carries
another at the back for a fee ranging between K500 and K1,000

When relocation calls are made to Shire Valley residents, they come in good faith, so that the lives of special groups such as children, women and the elderly can remain unsullied from the anger sparked when floods touch one’s body part, if not drown the hapless individual.

That is why, as at now, Save the Children International has asked the government and stakeholders to pay special attention to children, even as the death toll from floods has reached 56.


Dodma indicates that 184,589 households, or 922,945 people, have been affected by floods while 16,545 households, roughly 82,725 people, have been displaced.

Save the Children’s Country Director for Malawi, Kim Koch, said, while disasters disrupt lives of all age groups, they disrupt children’s lives the most.

“This is an especially distressing situation for children, many of whom may have had their lives and sense of normality totally disrupted. Children will be feeling varying degrees of anxiety, unsure of what’s left of their home and belongings such as books, and what may have happened to their neighbours. While immediate needs like food, shelter and clean drinking water are pressing, it’s clear that children and their communities will require longer-term support to recover,” Koch said, sentiments echoed by Foundation for Children’s Rights Executive Director, Jennifer Mkandawire.


Mkandawire said children’s health can be affected directly, as when they drown or contract diseases.

But Dodma spokesperson, Chipiliro Khamula, quashed such fears, saying rescuers are paying attention to special groups such as women and children.

“Dodma has, and will, always pay special attention to vulnerable people, especially women and children. For the record, under the National Disaster Preparedness and Relief Committee, we have the Protection Cluster chaired by the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare to see to it that women and children, who are the most vulnerable, are given special attention in times of disasters,” Khamula said.

Ironically, foreign experts such as South Africans have jetted in the country to help with rescue efforts, fully aware that the needs of children, the elderly and other groups can be easily overlooked.

“The South African government has sent us to help assess the damage and report back so that they can know the type of assistance that is needed. We know this is a disaster and it should not wait many weeks before we assist,” said spokesperson for the seven-member South Africa team, Thulani Nzuza.

That is why relocation calls are, from time to time, made; they are made to stop problems from degenerating into this— what President Peter Mutharika, who last week declared Malawi a state in disaster, and Nzuza call ‘disaster”.

The calls are made to keep society’s vulnerable groups untarnished by scars of dangers such as displacement, injury or, worse still, death—for, in the case of death, they will not be there to blame themselves.

The Shire Valley, no matter how good it is, hardly resembles a tableau of bliss residents want to portray it to the world.

No wonder, some people suggest that some victims stand deliberately in harm’s way because they have turned relief items into a tool for survival in the thick jungle of poverty and resource constraints.

Sadly, those who seek refuge in camps such as Monjo Primary school, Mchenga Primary school and Khungubwe Evacuation Centre— where Chikwawa victims have found shelter as of today, March 15 2019— only show signs of being heartily ashamed of their resistance to relocation calls when disaster strikes.

When the raging waters subside, they will engage the perfectly aimed irony of resistance, as if they have congenital ignorance of the devastation floods cause.

And, yet, wisdom is not just about knowing what to do and not to do; it is also, very much, about learning from the past; that ability to tell and retell sad stories while in the safety of some high ground far from Shire River’s banks.

It is not about telling and retelling sad stories of survival while remaining in the pit— read, Shire River banks— that reeks of nothing but death.

That is why Kalilombe and others are for relocation of the victims.

Even Mia backs such a suggestion, but says this can be done if dams are constructed in the Shire River, from where water can be pumped upland.

“The people stay close to the Shire River banks because the soil is fertile. If guarantees can be made that water for irrigation will be supplied to them, upland; surely, they can relocate.

“The source of water is there, the Shire River. What are needed are dams to supply water upland,” Mia said.

What is needed, then, is collaboration to finance the relocation exercise and dam construction works.

These are the resistance-breaking hammers.

Otherwise, if the situation persists, those who stick to river banks that breed nothing but death are playing a game they will lose, no matter how long it takes.

Never ending cycle of trouble

Surprisingly, those who suffer the negative effects of floods and other natural disasters, and those who do not, are warned each and every year.

But, it seems, such news is treated as a myth, until the reality of disaster strikes, turning structures such as houses, churches, schools and bridges into rubble— another macabre souvenir of the time bomb that ticks every time the rains are on us.

Portents of trouble became evident on October 1 2018, the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services announced that there was a likelihood of moderate El Nino weather conditions during the 2018/19 rainfall season which would cause floods in some parts of the country.

Nkhokwe indicated that the El Nino phenomenon was expected between September and November.

“Global models are currently projecting the development of moderate El Nino conditions between September and November 2018, which are likely to persist throughout the 2018/19 rainfall season,” he said.

An El Nino phenomenon is an unusual warning of waters over the Eastern Central Equatorial Pacific Ocean and is known to influence rainfall patterns across the world including Southern Africa and Malawi.

Nkhokwe said, between October 2018 and March 2019, most of the Northern Region areas, spilling over into Central Region areas of the country, would receive normal to above normal rainfall while most areas in the Southern Region would receive normal to below normal rainfall amounts.

“This implies that the impacts associated with reduced or increased rainfall amounts such as prolonged dry spells and floods, respectively, are likely to occur during the season,” he said.

He said this is based on observations and analyses in Malawi, with input from a climate experts meeting that took place in Gaborone, Botswana, recently.

Moderate El Nino phenomenon was also experienced in 2002/03 and in 2009/10 in Malawi.

Malawi’s climate is influenced by three major factors, which are El Nino Southern Oscillation, the Indian Ocean Dipole and Subtropical Indian Ocean Dipole.

In addition, rainfall patterns are driven mainly by the Intertropical Convergence Zone, Congo air mass and tropical cyclones, according to the department.

In the 2017/18 rainfall season, some areas, mostly in the Southern Region of Malawi, were heavily affected by dry spells which affected maize production output.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, at least 3.3 million people were food insecure during the 2018/19 lean period, statistics that are reflected in a Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee report.

While adverse weather conditions were, truly, foreseen, nobody foresaw events of last week, when rains fell in droves, leaving devastation and bad memories in their wake.

On March 5 2019, the Department of Climate Change and Metrological Services warned that the Southern Region would experience severe weather conditions that would weaken only on Friday, March 8.

The department further warned that the anticipated heavy rains could cause floods in prone areas while strong winds would destroy property and endanger life.

“To secure property and lives, the public should, therefore, take precautionary measures such as moving to higher grounds when water levels start rising, avoid crossing flooding rivers and not seek shelter under trees and weak shelters,” Nkhokwe said.

He attributed the conditions to a low pressure area initially traced in the Mozambique Channel.

However, the department seemed to doubt its own wisdom for, on Thursday last week, it changed tune, saying conditions would normalise on Sunday— and not on Thursday or Friday as earlier communicated.

As it were, by Saturday, the rains were over in Blantyre and other highly affected areas.

“When we said that the rains would weaken on Thursday, we didn’t know that the air mass, which was in Mozambique and triggering the rains here in Malawi, would actually come to Malawi.

“As we speak, that air mass has come over and we expect the rains to continue up to Saturday when the air mass will be heading back to Mozambique,” he said on Thursday.

Trail of death

As at now, floods have claimed 56 lives— a heavy sacrifice even in the time of war.

In Chikwawa, six people died after, in the words of Chikwawa Police Station spokesperson Foster Benjamin, being swept away by water in flooding rivers such as Livuza and Mkhate on Wednesday.

It took a day for rescuers to find remains of the victims.

“One of the dead people is Helles Maperera, a health surveillance assistant (HSA) at Maperera Health Centre. Two of the dead were husband and wife,” he said.

This means, in the case of the HSA, Malawi will have to dig deeper into its pockets to train more HSAs.

In 2011, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund and Ministry of Health and Population, Malawi had about 12,000 HSAs, a vital link between village and the health system. The HSAs’ work is carefully monitored by the village health committee, which is composed of an equal number of men and women and serves for a term of three years.

In a paper titled ‘Motivation of Health Surveillance Assistants in Malawi: A Qualitative Study’, Kingsley R. Chikaphupha, Maryse C. Kok, Lot Nyirenda, Ireen Namakhoma and Sally Theobald indicate that motivation of health workers is a critical component of performance and is shaped by multiple factors.

They cite salary, accommodation, human resource management, supplies and logistics, and community links as the five main themes that shape HSAs’ motivation.

They, however, observe that human resources for health remain a key challenge to the aspiration of achieving quality universal health coverage in Malawi.

“In response to this, there have been increasing investments in community health worker (CHW) programmes, with the aim of bringing health services closer to communities and making services more accessible in resource-constrained settings,” they write.

A CHW is a health worker who carries out promotional, preventive or curative health services, and who is the first point of contact at the community level.

“A CHW can be based in the community or in a basic primary healthcare facility. In addition to specific aspects of their job descriptions, CHW selection criteria, remuneration and incentives, training, supervision and support structures vary by country and depend in part on the extent to which CHWs are integrated into a health system as well as on the degree to which task-shifting has been implemented,” their paper reads in part.

With Maperera, investment in the health worker that was him has been lost to floods, and it will take years before one like him can be trained and positioned to serve rural dwellers.

Meanwhile, as the government and Shire Valley residents grapple with the idea of relocation, relief items have, as usual, been directed to people in affected areas.

Rescue efforts

MAN ON THE GROUND— Homeland Security Minister Nicholas Dausi (right) talks to a flood victim in Chikwawa

On Saturday, Homeland Security Minister Nicholas Dausi— who oversees operations of Dodma— left Blantyre City early in the morning with relief items meant for people affected by floods in Chikwawa, only to discover that the M1 Road had been cut off at Domasi, a spot between Thabwa and Kamuzu Bridge across the Shire River.

That has been another effect of the floods: people being cut off from the rest of Malawi, making transportation on land close to impossible.

Such is the situation in Mainland Chikwawa and the East Bank.

After some roads had been cut off, Dausi failed to take relief items such as maize, plastic sheets, buckets and blankets to the intended victims of the floods.

Even Malawi Defence Force personnel and their search and rescue equipment were stuck; meaning that it was mission impossible.

“I have been here since yesterday. I am going to Nsanje to visit my parents but I am stuck here,” said Joseph Mbundungu, one of the people found at Domasi.

Some motorists forced their vehicles into thick mud and water, with some people pushing them to provide an extra force at a fee, ranging from K5,000 to K20,000. Call it cashing in on disaster.

“I have paid K500 for this man to carry me across. I have been greatly inconvenienced because I did not plan for this expenditure,” said Mary Mbamba, a businesswoman.

Linda Saulosi, 70, escaped death by a whisker.

“My house collapsed while I was lost in deep sleep. Fortunately, it collapsed outwards and I am here to tell my story,” she said.

Hers is one of the over 60 households that are being accommodated at Mediramu Evacuation Centre. People homeless in their country.

This being the case, can Shire Valley people be accused of recklessness, or inviting trouble to themselves and waiting to reap the benefits?

“I think, this time, floods have affected most parts of the country and there is no time to blame each other. We, as the government, just want to reach out to all those affected,” Dausi said.

Indeed, as he made a short and anguished visit to Chikwawa that Saturday, his Transport and Public Works Ministry counterpart, Jappie Mhango, was making a long and anguished visit to Mangochi District, where floods have left scars of pain.

On Sunday, Mhango toured Makumba, one of the four bridges which running water washed away along the Mangochi-Makanjira Road last week.

This means rehabilitation works have started.

“We expect that the contractor we have engaged, Mota Engil, will be able to open the road to traffic in the next four days. We want to make sure that people’s economic activities are not negatively affected.

“We know that lives of people have been disturbed but we will try to come in with relevant support,” Mhango said.

Mhango also said it was not time for blame-games, observing that it was time to reach out to those affected in Chikwawa, Nsanje and other districts.

“But, sure enough, we need permanent solutions,” he said.

Mota Engil Project Manager, Jose Emmanuel Pereira, said his team would continue assessing other bridges before advising the government on how best to improve them.

Apart from motorists, healthcare service delivery has suffered a battering in the wake of the floods. In Mangochi, this means no referral services to Mangochi District Hospital from Lulanga, Makanjira, Lugola, Kadango and Lungwena health centres.

But Ministry of Health and Population spokesperson, Joshua Malango, said the ministry was doing its best to ensure that the provision of healthcare services was not negatively affected.

Whatever the case, what is clear is that floods, a relatively silent crisis when compared to prolonged drought, spur a ‘loud’ humanitarian crisis.

Unfortunately, the damage floods cause is not based on total ignorance in all parts of the country; in some districts, it borders on neglect.

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