* story updated below
Up to 20,000 people in the southern tip of Malawi most affected by the current floods remain cut off from the rest of the country, without food, health care or ways to prevent possible outbreaks, the humanitarian medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (MSF) said on Friday.
Humanitarian relief is slowly arriving in the districts of Chikwawa, where the waters have started to recede. But some of the most affected areas downstream are only accessible by helicopter, making humanitarian intervention difficult. MSF, which has been responding to the floods since January 9, is refocusing its intervention around the town of Nsanje, where it has a long standing regular project, and is assessing ways to access the more remote East Bank.
Worst floods in memory
“The floods are behaving like a slow tsunami, with the river swelling progressively downstream towards the south and Mozambique,” says Amaury Grégoire, MSF’s head of mission in Malawi, currently in Nsanje evaluating the impact of the floods. “Most of Nsanje and East Bank are submerged under two to three meters of water, which has transformed these vast plains into a giant lake engulfing houses and bridges. Even though these areas are prone to floods, old people I talked to could not remember events of this magnitude.”
As the rains have eased in the past few days, the water levels are expected to progressively come down. However, long term solutions need to be found for people whose possessions and crops, which are the primary mean of subsistence for 85 per cent of the population, have been completely destroyed in the flood.
Difficult and unsanitary conditions
“Several camps have been set up for people who lost their homes, but the majority of them have found refuge in the houses of friends or relatives that are still standing. The little mud houses are very crowded, and, with most wells and boreholes contaminated by the floods, people are living in precarious, unsanitary conditions”, says Grégoire.
MSF has been setting up tents and distributing non- food items, mosquito nets and water treatment kits, as well as building latrines to prevent the emergence of water-borne diseases. The organization has had a presence in Malawi since 1986. It currently runs three projects helping people living with HIV, one of them located in Nsanje. In recent years, MSF conducted humanitarian interventions after floods affecting the country in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
UPDATE: January 19, 2015
Julien Lefèvre is a deputy field coordinator with MSF in Nsanje, Malawi. He has returned from a reconnaissance mission by helicopter in the South of Malawi, the area most affected by floods, where he assessed the dozen of evacuation centres set up in the district.
You’ve surveyed the area by air. What does it look like?
The large plains have been transformed into a lake, and now that the waters have started to recede a few islands are appearing here and there. But the most shocking thing is to see people stranded in the middle of nowhere, some wading in water, some on canoes, struggling to reach even slightly higher, drier ground.
You’ve just returned from Makhanga, a village that is still cut off from the rest of the country. What is the situation there?
Makhanga is now an island where about 5,000 people are completely stranded. Most of them left nearby villages or hamlets after the flooding, and Makhanga is the only place where they could find refuge. About a thousand people are gathered in the village’s primary school, which has been transformed into a de facto camp for displaced persons. People there say that two out of the five wells in the area still have clear water. But food is running scarce and, as the clinic has been inundated, there are no health services at all.
What is most needed at the moment?
Food. So many people have little or no way to get food. I saw an old man walking on the side of the road, with the most haggard look on his face. He had been walking with 15 others and was pleading for something to eat. People lost absolutely everything, and are just looking for a place to sleep, for something to eat.
Another concern is the high risk of malaria. We’ve already detected cases among young children. And with water everywhere the breeding ground for mosquitoes has expanded. We can foresee a spike in the number of cases in the coming week. Because people have lost everything, one of our major priorities is the distribution of mosquito nets.