When it Rains, it Pours

By Regina Junio

In August 2014, I wrote a post about Malawi and the WATERS Project. The project focused on reducing the poorest rural population's vulnerability to climate change by linking local government, civil society, and community to enable equitable climate-proof integrated environmental management. The project used the Ecosystem Services Approach (ESAp), which is one way of understanding the complex relationships between nature and humans in decision-making and resource planning, and community-based participatory risk assessment and analysis. Risk assessment results show that the communities in the four districts covered by the project (i.e. Karonga, Salima, Chikhwawa and Nsanje) experienced long periods of drought and floods.

The rainy season in Malawi usually comes in early November, but it came more than a month later last year. In mid-January of this year, Malawi experienced its worst floods in half a century when over 170mm of rain, usually a month’s worth of rain, fell in less than 24 hours.  In the southern parts of Malawi, especially in Nsanje, the rain was non-stop for almost 72 hours. As of January 16, Malawi President Peter Mutharika declared 15 of 28 districts disaster zones, and placed the country in a state of calamity. The floods displaced more than 174,000 people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and left more than 50 people dead or missing. The floods have also destroyed hundreds of hectares of crops. The floods have left most affected families with almost nothing to survive on.  Malaria and water-borne diseases is widespread among the survivors. The rains went on for two weeks, raising the number of internally displaced people to more than 250,000.  The Malawi Meteorological Services forecasts more rains will come in the next few days, or even weeks.

Looking back, reflecting on the results of our community-based vulnerability and hazard mapping workshops done for the project in early 2013, it is safe to assume that most of the people in the community are aware of the hazards they are facing and the potential impacts of these hazards. All four districts have also observed that every year, the rains have become more and more unpredictable and the frequency and severity of the floods during the rainy season have worsened over the years. The workshops have also brought the communities to the realization that the health of the ecosystems will impact the communities; that whatever is done upstream will affect the communities downstream. Just when the communities, through their Village Natural Resources Management Committees, were starting to grow nurseries, re-green their forests, and explore alternative livelihoods, the rains came. They were almost ready and were looking forward to implementing the programs they painstakingly tried to include in District Development Plans to avoid their biggest fear. Unfortunately it rained, and washed away all they have.

When I left Malawi in late 2013, I saw communities eager to work together to address their vulnerability. With their most recent disaster experience, I wonder how they are. Will their experience bring them a stronger resolve to pursue their plans?

But I ask myself a bigger question. In least developed countries like Malawi, should disaster risk management be an essential component of climate change projects like the WATERS Project? Should we take into consideration the entire disaster cycle and focus on the measures that would not only reduce vulnerability but also raise community disaster preparedness?

Phase 2 of the WATERS Project will commence soon. But because of the floods, the communities will not be able to proceed as planned. Most of the communities are still at the emergency response phase, while only a few are starting to rehabilitate. Unfortunately, the impacts of the floods will not end as soon as the grounds dry up. For most communities, restoring to “normal” or near normal conditions will take years. Is this an opportunity for the project to re-think its strategies and get involved in the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase? Will other externally funded projects do the same?