Cyclone Freddy dumped six months’ rain in six days in Malawi
With the death toll rising and homelessness increasing, Malawi, already grappling with a major cholera outbreak, sends out an SOS.
More than a week after Tropical Cyclone Freddy made landfall in Malawi, leaving a trail of destroyed homes, damaged roads, crippling the national power grid and jamming operations at the hydroelectric dam, government officials and experts appeared to be in a state of collective shock.
President Lazarus Chakwera has declared a state of disaster for the worst-hit areas and called for 14 days of national mourning with flags flying at half-mast. The ministry of education has suspended schools to create 505 temporary camps for 367,929 displaced people.
The president described the aftermath of the cyclone as “one of the darkest hours in the history of our nation”, which needs everyone to take part in the recovery process. 40 roads and bridges have been cut off hampering rescue efforts in remote areas.
“We need assistance from our international partners and donors to deal with this tragedy. This is a national tragedy that has affected many people. Many have responded positively to our appeal but the situation is so grave that we cannot take any donation for granted,” he said.
The government’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) puts the number of dead at slightly over 500. The commercial city of Blantyre was one of the worst hit districts with 99 people killed in a day. The figure is still rising. Hundreds remain missing. There is a lack of emergency rescue services. There is a shortage of food and shelter.
Just as worrying, Cyclone Freddy’s devastation has raised concerns that cholera cases could rise. Malawi was already in the grip of a severe cholera outbreak when the cyclone struck. With water systems and toilets destroyed by the tropical storm, there are fears that the development could worsen Malawi’s deadliest cholera outbreak.
Malawi’s minister of water and sanitation, Abida Mia said: “We have never seen this kind of disaster here. We are calling upon all our donor partners, the non-governmental organisations, the private sector and anybody with anything to help. We need blankets, extra food, rice and anything that you have. Please come and assist the people here.”
The World Food Programme (WFP) has stepped up its emergency response to help an estimated 130,000 people affected by Freddy, which, it said, dumped six months’ worth of rainfall in six days. WFP said the cyclone hit just as the rainy season was tailing off, with several rivers and water bodies already at high levels resulting in severe flooding. This has inundated farmlands and destroyed produce – just as farmers were about to harvest the only crop of the year – compounding an already difficult year in which 3.8 million people need food assistance.
The relief agency is providing immediate lifesaving food assistance by distributing corn soya blend, a partially pre-cooked fortified food consumed as porridge to displaced people. WFP is also providing trucks to the humanitarian community to transport supplies and boats used by the government for search-and-rescue operations. About 500 people have been rescued so far. WFP also plans to deploy a helicopter to airlift urgently needed medical supplies, food, fuel, and other relief items.
“A lot of areas are inaccessible restricting movement of assessment and humanitarian teams, and life-saving supplies,” said Paul Turnbull, WFP’s Country Director in Malawi. “We are ramping up as quickly as we can under the circumstances, but the true extent of the damage will only be revealed once assessments have been concluded. What is clear though is that the country will need significant support.”
Malawi, where 80% of the population subsists on smallholder agriculture, is at the sharp end of the climate crisis. There have been five major extreme weather events – drought and floods – over the last seven years. Cyclone Freddy comes in the wake of multiple crises, not least a cost-of-living crisis triggered by food-price inflation. Maize prices have tripled in a year. And all this, along with the worst cholera epidemic in decades.
In Mulanje, a district situated in the southeast on the Mozambique border, thousands need food and support after rivers burst their banks and washed away their houses and crops.
One survivor, 21-year-old Mary Edward of Sonjeka village narrated how she lost her baby to the raging waters of the Ruo River while up in a tree as she waited for a rescue team.
“The floods hit our village around 10am. I had to climb a tree to save my baby and myself. For two days I was stuck up in there, clinging to a branch. I saw branches of trees falling into the water with people. Then when I wanted to suckle my three-month old baby, it suddenly slipped out of my hands,” Edward said. “I am tormented, I am mourning my baby.”
Member of Parliament for Mulanje Southeast, Naomi Kilekwa, said the magnitude of the disaster in the area demanded immediate humanitarian assistance. She said some of the survivors are living in deplorable conditions and need shelter, food and seed to avert hunger.
“Going around the camps you see the devastation, the pain, the destitution on survivors’ faces. They need our support. They have lost loved ones. They are still searching for their loved ones. All this is taking a toll on them. They need food, blankets, and amenities that can ease their pains. We all need to act now,” Kilekwa said.