File Under Climate Change: What if Malawi has to cope with another severe flood

In the year 2000, the citizens of Mozambique suffered a severe flood event. Hundreds died, and many more were displaced. This intense level of flooding was believed to be a one-in-fifty year event for the region. Fifteen years later, in January this year, Malawi and Mozambique have been hit by another extreme flood event. It would seem that global climate modeling projections indicating frequent drought and flood events in the region are not far off the mark. The possibility of increased frequency of such events, coupled with weak disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation mechanisms in the countries affected is disconcerting.

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The floods that have devastated much of the southern region of Malawi represent one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. Casualty counts, and numbers of people displaced, are rising all the time and people are still flocking to camps that have been set up. The suite of challenges facing the country is just beginning with the aftermath involving struggles to improve difficult sanitary conditions in camps, infrastructural damage, power shortages, and finding a way to somehow help those who have lost everything. The immediacy and urgency of the response should not obscure the need to review the causes and ensure that the country is better prepared to handle this situation in the future.

Satellite records have shown that parts of the southern region received up to 913mm of rain between the 8th and the 15th of January with much of that falling over the final three days. To put this into perspective, that is over four times the average monthly rainfall usually expected in January. The situation was unprecedented and Malawi was unprepared to deal with it.

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The response to the disaster has been immediate, with different humanitarian groups working with the Government to help those in need. The whole country has mobilized in sending resources through various charities to support the people affected. While there is no doubt about the sincerity of the reaction, the lack of preparedness is something that cannot be risked in the future.

As a Malawian working in the climate change and natural resource management sectors, the rapid decline of natural and social systems has been harrowing to witness. We have spent much of the last few generations decimating our forests. We cultivate on slopes and river banks with no concern for buffer zones or natural flood attenuation measures. We have almost systematically set about reducing the capabilities of the natural system to absorb such an event. The same approach is prevalent in infrastructure development; we build our roads without incorporating adequate drainage options. We stay in compact, densely populated areas which are highly vulnerable to floods. We chop trees down and rip up gardens replacing the spaces with concrete all in the name of development. Government has not modeled good practice either. The department that is tasked with dealing with disasters is under-resourced and unprepared. Local government structures which are key to response in these events are weak and marginalised. National legislation on disaster risk has been in development for years and is yet to be passed, and to top this all off we have a recent history of serious misuse of public resources.

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Such rainfall events are unprecedented, but given the onset of global climate change, the likelihood of facing similar conditions in the future is increasing. How can we improve disaster risk reduction and disaster response measures to deal with events of this magnitude?

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the nation today. One of the expected impacts is the increase in frequency and magnitude of storm events. The low pressure system that was key in drawing in moisture that led to the floods was an unusual event for this time of year but may well recur again.

The loss of life and damage is irreversible. The way to honour the memory of those people who have lost their lives is to make an active and concerted effort to ensure that this does not happen again. The road back will be long and hard but we owe it to those who have suffered, and to ourselves as a nation, to ensure that we adequately equip ourselves for the future. Malawi needs its leaders and citizens to actively push the climate change adaptation agenda both nationally and internationally. It’s time to change the way we do things.

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Akeel Hajat

Akeel Hajat is a climate change specialist based in Malawi.

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