Cyclone Idai Devastates Southern Malawi

words and photographs Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

(Figures correct as at 2 April 2019. Death toll has since been raised to 60.)

In what is being described as the deadliest tropical cyclone worldwide in 2019, as of March, Intense Tropical Cyclone Idai hit Southern Malawi with a rainstorm which caused severe flooding in 15 of 28 administrative districts. The floods killed 56 people, injured 577 and affected over 184,500 families representing over 900,000 people, according to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DODMA), a government agency mandated to coordinate disaster relief activities in the South East African country.

Cyclone Idai made landfall in the Mozambican port city of Beira, 900 kilometers southwest of Malawi, on Friday 15 March and within hours it had reached the southern part of Malawi, causing colossal destruction of infrastructure, crops and livestock.

With wind speeds of up to 170kph (105mph), coupled with persistent rains of about 160mm in 24 hours, Idai caused severe flooding in several southern districts of Malawi—namely Zomba, Mangochi, and Phalombe—but the worst hit were the Shire Valley sub-region districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje, which are the country’s lowest in altitude and thus the most prone to flooding. These are the districts through which Malawi’s biggest river, the Shire, passes before emptying its waters in Zambezi farther downstream.

In Chikwawa, the Shire burst its banks in areas of Traditional Chiefs Kasisi, Mulilima, Maseya, and Makhuwira, washing away houses and thousands of hectares of crop fields, killing 10 people and displacing thousands.

Among the dead were six members of the same family, who were swept away by a river when they were crossing on a canoe and were found dead downstream, according to DODMA’s desk officer for Chikwawa, Francis Kadzokoya.

“I can confirm 10 people were killed in the floods, among them six members of a same family whose canoe was washed away following persistent rains upland,” he said.

Official figures from the agriculture ministry indicate at least 15,444 domesticated animals were lost to the floods. These were mostly chickens and goats, which are popular with farmers in this part of the country. Cattle and pigs were also affected.

Some of the districts which registered deaths as a result of the heavy rains are Blantyre, Thyolo, Nsanje, Balaka, Phalombe, and Zomba.

Most of the victims of this disaster were women, girls, children, the elderly and people with disabilities which compounded the situation further.

The main road that connects the district of Chikwawa with the commercial hub of Blantyre was not spared, as the marauding floods washed away a section of the road, rendering it impassable and triggering a traffic jam on both ends of the divide that hampered delivery of relief items and other essential emergency assistance by road.

Crowd of people pushing bicycles and carrying goods across a muddy landscape
Stranded road users on both ends of the cut off highway.

Main grid electricity went off for many days, the result of poles which carry electrical power lines being either destroyed by the heavy winds or washed away in the floods, especially in areas where the power lines passed through a riverbank.

Following a State of National Disaster declaration by President Peter Mutharika, many countries and humanitarian organizations provided various types of assistance, such as the South Africa National Defense Force (SANDF) deploying its search and rescue team and using a helicopter to join the Malawi Defence Force (MDF), which was already on the ground rescuing
flood victims, some of whom had been trapped in trees as they fled rising waters that had quickly engulfed the local area. This was especially true in eastern Chikwawa and south of Nsanje.

Tales of Destruction

Zefa Chasokera, a single mother of three, explains what happened to her on 16 March. She says while she and her children were asleep, at around 10 pm, she was awakened by strange sounds. She discovered that water had entered her house to the height about 30 centimeters. She quickly roused her children and escaped to nearby higher ground.

“I was awoken by some sounds which I think were of collapsing walls, and I just discovered the whole house was full of water. I hurriedly awoken my three children and we escaped to the upper land,” she said when we spoke to her at one of the displacement camps in the district.

Chasokera said that, by daybreak, her house and many others were nowhere to be seen. They had been washed away. Although she is happy to have survived the ordeal, along with her three children, the 32-year-old says her current situation is nonetheless dire, having lost her house, possessions, food, and livestock to the floods.

“We are destitute. I don’t have anything with which to start from, even the clothes me and my children are putting on are the only ones we have now,” she lamented.

Another victim of the flooding was 70-year-old Gunsaru Mafunga, who was almost killed when his house made from baked soil bricks collapsed over him. He was rescued by neighbours, who heard his call for help and came just in time to pull him safely from the rubble and subsequently take him to a health facility where he was treated for his injuries. Although he survived,
his seven goats were less fortunate, having been washed away along with his corn granary and livelihood.

“With rains falling overnight, the walls of my house really got soaked,” the widower said to us, “and one of the walls fell over me. Luckily, I screamed for help and people heard and came to rescue me. However, my goats and maize is gone.”

Cyclone Idai will likely result in food shortages for the affected districts in what otherwise could have been a good agricultural season. The flooding came when farmers were about to harvest their maize and rice crops, two of most popular cereal food for Malawian households.

A flooded maize field
A food security threat: a washed away maize field

Jossam Kanyelere of Julius village near the district headquarters says his rice crop field of approximately two acres is gone, having been wiped away by the Cyclone Idai-induced floods. He anticipated harvesting over 1000 kilograms from the field, but those anticipations are now history.  His construction plans, of completing a housing project he started last year, have been shattered.

“I depend on agriculture for my family’s livelihood,” he said, “and this year I had planned to complete my house project using the money I had hoped to earn from the rice sales, but all is in vain now.”

Farmer displaying his devastated crop
Josamu Kanyelere inspecting his destroyed rice paddy
Devastated maize field
The damage to Josamu’s farm was extensive

Apart from the rice crop, Kanyelere also lost a sugarcane plantation to the flooding, which he said was giving him an annual income of about US$400, a considerable amount in a country where the majority of people live on under US$2 a day.

“With this natural calamity, my livelihood and those of my dependents is completely disturbed,” he bemoaned. “It will take me a lot of time and effort to overcome this.”

As a result of the flooding, at least 291,470 households will not harvest anything from their fields, according to a statement given by Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development spokesperson Hamilton Chimala to the state media.

There are 173 floods displacement camps across the affected 17 districts, accommodating over 200,000 flood victims. Most of the people in these camps are women and children. With all of the camps’ makeshift shelters made from sticks and polythene sheets, in the absence of tarpaulin tents, the occupants are far from comfortable. These makeshift shelters
leak whenever it rains, soaking the corn flour rations they are receiving from government and humanitarian organizations.

Pots, pans, and buckets lined up outside a brick building
An open air cooking area for flood victims camping in this church building

The education sector has been affected too. While some classrooms were destroyed by Cyclone Idai, and will require complete reconstruction, many of those that survived are currently being used by flood victims as shelters, disrupting school lessons in the affected areas.

“Since the Cyclone Idai-induced floods occurred, we have had displaced people camping in the classrooms and we cannot chase them out,” said Clemence Kapito, a head teacher of an affected primary school in the area, “but it also means classes are not being offered until the victims found alternative accommodation.”

Other sectors which have been affected are fisheries and irrigation, with the latter suffering damage to most of its infrastructure and requiring unprecedented levels of capital to commence reconstruction, which is essential if the country’s recovery efforts are to bear any fruit. Small-scale irrigation schemes across the South East African country have contributed to the significant increase of food security and income for most rural households. This is due to the fact that, in addition feeding themselves and their families, farmers have been able to sell excess produce to make a living.

With search and rescue operations almost completed, the attention has shifted to providing relief items to flood victims, some of whom are located in areas which can no longer be reached by road—the roads have been severely damaged, rendering them impassable—so that the only means of transporting relief items and workers is by air.  A South African Defense Force (SANDF) helicopter has been assisting in airlifting food and other relief items from the district headquarters to the flood affected areas in a quest to reach out to all affected people with essential relief items.

IMG 0022b
A SANDF helicopter readying to take off to deliver relief items
One of the Malawi Red Cross Society-constructed camp sanitation facilities
An elderly floods victim receiving relief items

Several humanitarian organizations have been coming to the aid of displaced people with various relief items. Among them is the Malawi Red Cross Society, part of The International Committee of Red Crescent Society (ICRCS), which has been distributing items like blankets, kitchen utensils, essential drugs kits and food items to various affected areas.

The Minister of Homeland Security, Nicholous Dausi, under whose jurisdiction DODMA falls, estimates that about US$400 million dollars will be needed to rebuild damaged public infrastructure like roads, bridges, school classrooms and irrigation schemes. The budget estimate includes an allocation to construct stronger houses for some flood victims whose previous structures were made of mud, wood and grass, and were therefore vulnerable to natural disasters. They will now have houses made of cement, baked soil bricks and iron sheets.

“Going forward, as government we are planning to construct stronger houses in upper areas for some of the Cyclone Idai victims, which will be stronger so as to withstand the natural disasters like the recent one. These will be made from stronger building materials,” he said.

Malawi has of late been experiencing an increasing number of natural disasters, especially flooding and drought. In 2015, the country also experienced severe flooding, which killed 105 and
displaced thousands. Experts have attributed this to climate change and to environmental degradation, which the country has been experiencing for the past two decades. In a country where 90 percent of the total population of about 17 million uses fuel wood for cooking, forest cover has been significantly reduced, bringing with it challenges like flooding and droughts.

Cyclone Idai also caused severe destruction in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, with each country reporting the deaths of 202 and 102 people, respectively. Infrastructure such as roads and bridges, as well as power lines, water supplies and telecommunications towers, was heavily affected by the flooding in these countries.

There has been a cholera outbreak in the city of Beira, one of the worst affected parts in central Mozambique where health officials have recorded 246 cases of the disease so far.