Cyclone Idai: Reflections from Malawi

By Dr.Deepa Pullanikkatil, Co-Director of the SFA network

Recently, I visited the Malawi hub of the Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) Network to offer my assistance. With Hub Director Dr. Boyson Moyo, Research Administrator Stewart Paul and other hub members, we developed research proposals and visited many institutions including UNICEF, the University of Livingstonia, the University of Mzuzu, an NGO (Church and Society), a local government institution (Machinga District Council), a sustainable organic farm (Tikondwe Freedom Gardens), and a thinktank (Leadership for Environment and Development). Several organizations joined our network and others expressed interest in collaborating with us. At Mbando village, we had fruitful discussions on an integrated approach to development based on the population-health-environment nexus. It was a busy and productive two weeks, but what touched me most were the impacts and aftermath of Cyclone Idai in Malawi. I want to share some reflections on this.

Aerial view of Nsanje district, Malawi (Source: UNICEF)

It was just two weeks after Cyclone Idai hit, that we had a chance to meet with Mandere Bester, the District Commissioner of Machinga District, southern Malawi – one of the 15 districts affected by the cyclone. Cyclone Idai was one of the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, causing widespread damage and loss of life in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Bester explained to us that 29,000 houses had been damaged or washed away in Machinga District alone. The scale of destruction in Malawi, although less than Mozambique, was devastating, with many thousands of people relocated to schools and churches that became relief camps during the cyclone and its aftermath of floods. Malawi declared a state of disaster and the media reported that 868,900 people have been affected by the floods, with a reported death toll of 59.

Bester described a particularly moving aspect of the disaster. He said that of the 29,000 houses damaged in his district, 19,000 were women-headed households. According to Bester, men in Malawi need to be encouraged to financially support their families and advised against abandoning them when they migrate elsewhere in search of income opportunities. Listening to him, we realised that understanding culture, power, vulnerabilities and gender inequalities in rural settings is necessary in times of disaster.

The SFA team also had a chance to visit the village of Mbando in Machinga District. As we drove to the village, we could see burst stream and river banks and unusually high silt load at bridges and culverts, the aftermath of the floods. Moses Phulusa, the Community Coordinator of Abundance, explained that 105 households make up Mbando village, where 26 pit latrines had collapsed, 8 kitchens had been damaged, roads and rice fields had flooded and several trees had fallen down. The destruction of crop fields is akin to the destruction of human livelihoods in Malawi, where over 85% of people dwell in rural areas and practice farming, with the majority (95%) living off subsistence farming. The farmers and residents are now waiting for the rainy season to end so they can begin rebuilding their damaged assets. “Many farmers’ rice fields were affected, even mine. What can we do?… Ah, but God will provide”, said Moses, inspiring me with his smile, which reflected hopefulness even in this time of despair.

As we discussed the situation with the staff of UNICEF in Lilongwe, it was clear that humanitarian agencies in Malawi were very busy providing relief to displaced people and addressing the health impacts of this disaster (cholera cases were on the rise). The Government of Malawi had established approximately 60 internally displaced person (IDP) camps in the two southernmost districts which were the hardest hit: Chikwawa and Nsanje. A friend working for a private sector logistics company in Lilongwe said that they were remodelling their trucks to become mobile clinics to support communities in the affected areas.

For now, the buzz of relief work happening in Malawi was reassuring. However, it is scary to think of what the future could hold, with climate change predicted to increase the frequency of such storm events. Sadly, it’s the poor and vulnerable who are most affected, and they are the ones who have least contributed to climate change. Cyclone Idai was not just a natural disaster; it was a storm made worse by climate change, a regular occurrence worldwide. Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe recorded a combined death toll of over 1,000. Cyclones know no borders and require both a regional and continental approach to response and preparedness. In light of this sobering thought, the SFA team reflected with concern on what we could do. We agreed that reducing the vulnerability of communities and enhancing both their resilience and the landscape’s resilience to such extreme weather events is key. Collectively, the members of SFA have so much knowledge; surely it can be of use to serve communities affected by such disasters. Certainly we can strive to make our scientific work more relevant and enhance our understanding of hydrometeorological disasters and how best to prepare for them, so that we minimise loss of life in Malawi and beyond.