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Washed away: Malawi after the floods

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Washed away: Malawi after the floods

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 276 people, 230,000 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 28 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. Many farmers will have lean harvests. As a result, these floods could worsen the country’s already fragile economy, which is dependent on agriculture for 90% of its export revenues. Malawi’s government, alongside the International Monetary Fund, had projected GDP growth of 5.8% for 2015. But this was based on “a good agriculture season”. Projections will now have to be revised downwards.

Evidently, the government needs to confront the results of flooding with utmost seriousness. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, President Mutharika estimated that his government needed 23.9 billion Malawian Kwacha (MK), about $51 million, to recover from the damage. Malawi’s parliament, sitting in February for a mid-term budget, was due to approve 38 billion MK ($81 million) to go towards disaster relief efforts. However, figures from Unicef suggest the impact of the floods is even worse than first feared.

Unfortunately, the Malawian media is, thus far, not asking the tough questions of government. The tendency in Malawi is that local bigwigs are only too happy to “help” in front of the cameras, because being seen helping enables them to avoid criticism and enhance their reputations. Some powerful and influential politicians in Malawi sponsor journalists’ transportation and “allowances” in order to have their “donations” events covered. This skews coverage away from finding out what went wrong and what can be improved for next time, towards praising a few individuals for their ability to donate.

A local journalist, Idriss Ali Nassah, currently based in Ethiopia, accurately captured this in his Twitter posting: “If only [Malawi floods] had happened in an election year, all manner of “well-wishers” would have rushed to assist.” By “well-wishers”, Nassah meant politicians looking for votes.

In a follow-up tweet, he added: “the timing of [Malawi’s flooding] is horrible. After elections, those with the means have no appetite to help. Next election is 4 years away, anyways.” To some Malawians, these sentiments may come across as insensitive and irresponsible, because these floods have been framed as something that must unite all Malawians as they make collective efforts to help those affected.

Yet, Nassah is absolutely right: You do not need to go beyond local media coverage to see where priorities are. Details of donations, by size and giver, fill local media reports. There are no hard questions and analysis of the government’s response and its lack of preparedness to deal with the floods. The feeling is that those who dare question are out there to derail noble efforts by the administration and the “well-wishers”.

As it is, there are still a lot of bodies being recovered and a lot more missing people are feared dead. Are these bodies identifiable? Are they being buried in mass graves? These human stories are not being told because even the media are afraid of being seen as unsympathetic. Yet, the country needs to confront these uncomfortable truths if Malawi, as a country, is going to learn lessons and manage future disasters better.

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Written by Jimmy Kainja

Jimmy Kainja is a communications lecturer at University of Malawi, Chancellor College. He also blogs and writes on social and political issues on sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Malawi.

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