AHEAD of Christian Aid Week, Scot Jennifer Clark explains the challenges faced by refugees whose homes were destroyed by floods in Malawi this year. Ilona Amos reports
Scots are helping local aid workers to provide vital emergency support for refugees in Africa after devastating floods killed 176 people and forced nearly a quarter of a million more to flee from their homes earlier this year. The disaster has wreaked havoc on Malawi, where the worst rainy season in two decades left entire villages annihilated and vast swathes of land under water.
Thousands of homes have been washed away, while crops have been destroyed and livestock wiped out in communities whose survival depends on subsistence farming.
The damage stretches across around 64,000 hectares of land, according to the United Nations.
Malawi’s climate leaves inhabitants at the mercy of frequent floods and droughts, but experts believe the effects of global warming are increasing the number and severity of extreme weather events.
Now many of the 230,000 displaced villagers face a new threat from disease and malnutrition as they struggle to access food and clean water in makeshift camps.
As families camp side by side in tents in muddy fields, the main task is to provide shelter, water, toilet facilities and basic household and hygiene essentials lost in the deluge.
Nsanje, a community of just under 200,000 people in the south of Malawi, has been rocked by recent events.
Glasgow-based Jennifer Clark, who works with the charity Christian Aid Scotland, travelled to the area to witness first-hand the impact on local people and the landscape.
“More than a quarter of Malawians do not have access to clean, safe water and good sanitation, and every year thousands of children die from waterborne diseases like diarrhoea and cholera,” she said.
“The situation is exacerbated by ever-worsening year-round effects of climate change in the region, such as seasonal droughts and flooding from the nearby Shire river.”
Increasingly regular dry spells are limiting agricultural production in the district, one of Malawi’s poorest, making it difficult for people to earn a living and feed their families. But during the time of a flood, water supplies are greatly disrupted and at risk of contamination.
Ms Clark said: “As we entered the region, it was clear something had gone terribly wrong here. While the waters have gradually receded, the damage left behind was still palpable.”
She visited Camp Bitilinyu, which serves around 11,000 people – around 2,300 households. Relief efforts are providing essential items such as blankets, mats and water purification tablets to those struggling to survive in the wake of the disaster.
“Before me, thousands of families were camped out in tents pitched in muddy, wet fields.
“In the heat of the day, many were at a loss for what to do – far from home, hungry and without the means to work and earn themselves a living.”
Many families had no warning that the floods would wreak such havoc on their lives.
“We experience rains each and every year, but this one is almost ten times what we have experienced in the past,” said 56-year-old Boniface Chamambala.
“We were expecting rain, but not that much. We did not know it would be such a disaster.”
He and his family fled in all directions when the downpours hit, with his wife, Eniya, initially crossing the border into Mozambique. They were split up for several days.
“I felt like I was in pain because we were separated, especially because I did not know if my wife had food.
“We just had to run for our lives. We had no time to take anything with us,” he said.
Eventually rescue boats arrived and many families were fortunate enough to be reunited at Camp Bitilinyu.
The Chamambalas are living here with their two children and young grandson.
They will stay until conditions improve enough for them to venture back and attempt to rebuild their shattered lives.
“I don’t know how many houses were destroyed, but I know it’s a lot. I don’t know what the situation is with my home,” he said.
“The children are mentally disturbed by this situation. Right now they are not going to school, they are just in these camps. All their school materials like notebooks have been lost.”
His wife, 49, said: “The things I miss most about home are my clothes, blankets, cooking utensils and soap. We are sleeping separately from our husbands and we miss them.
“We are given only one pot to cook with, and children have to eat the same food as the adults.
“Sometimes we get porridge in the morning, and that can be our only food for the day. It’s very hard.”
Another flood victim, 21-year-old Martha Samalani, recently gave birth to a baby boy.
SHE was in her ninth month of pregnancy when the deluge began, and she and her husband were forced to climb a tree with their two-year-old son to escape the rapidly swelling waters. They had to stay there for an entire day and could only watch, helpless, as their home, their animals and all their belongings were swept away by the fast-flowing and ever-expanding Shire river.
“I was scared, and it was difficult because I was heavily pregnant,” she said.
“But eventually a boat came and rescued us and we were brought to this camp.
“I had my baby boy three days ago. He doesn’t have a name yet.
“It’s challenging being here instead of home because I don’t have much food and breastfeeding him is becoming a problem.
“Also, we are sleeping without a mosquito net and he has lots of bites already. I am worried he might get malaria. I only want him to be safe.”
Ms Clark was shocked at the extent of the carnage. In one place, a river had burst its banks by more than 11 miles.
“We came to a gap in the road where a bridge used to be, and saw train tracks badly twisted and damaged beyond repair,” she said. “It was clear just how strong the rains had been to cause this much damage.
“Canoes in front of us were being used by a handful of fishermen, determined to feed their families.
“During the rescue operation, many of these were used to reach land that had become cut off, but unfortunately some of the boats capsized and people were swept away. Many have never been found.”
Although the latest events have been particularly extreme, Mr Chamambala said Malawi’s weather had had an enormous impact on how people were able to support themselves in the longer term.
“We experience rains each and every year, but this one is almost ten times what we have experienced in the past,” he said.
“We always plant rice and for that we need water. We rely on water, and when we have it we are safe. But the waters that came this year were just too much.
“The land is good to cultivate and we have the river nearby, but the weather is unpredictable and more and more this is affecting how we are living and what we can grow. It is a struggle to keep going.”
Women are often responsible for collecting water for their families. Like many others, Mrs Chamambala walks more than four miles every day in all seasons to reach the nearest safe supply.
But with little investment and a lack of maintenance, many water points have fallen into disrepair.
CHRISTIAN Aid’s project, with support from the Scottish Government’s Climate Justice Fund, aims to provide safe drinking water for 1,500 households in Nsanje and install two solar irrigation pumps to provide water for agriculture.
Water points will be set up across the community, meaning people will not have to travel so far to access drinkable supplies.
Relief work is already beginning to improve prospects for refugees at Bitilinyu camp, with residents now having access to clean water and toilet facilities.
But life will remain difficult in the weeks ahead as they come to terms with their losses and face an uncertain future.
The Scottish Government is backing two Christian Aid Scotland projects in Malawi, providing almost £800,000 to help enhance community-based maternal, neonatal and child care in Karonga district, and with its Climate Justice Fund to improve community resilience through improved water and food supplies.
Included in these are the provision of mobile phones to link communities to health facilities, four motorbike ambulances, improvements to healthcare in all 63 villages and better access to safe water for 1,500 households. Further funding has just been released for another project in the south to improve maternal and healthcare services.
“Scottish volunteers and aid workers have made a real and lasting difference to the lives of many people in Malawi,” Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s international development minister, said.
“The work of volunteers is especially important given the recent devastating floods that the people of Malawi are dealing with.
“Scotland is a good global citizen, committed to contributing to the international community, and having a positive influence across the globe.
“From the start of our international development programme, Malawi has been by our side.
“Both countries have benefited and I have no doubt our partnership will go from strength to strength.”
Ms Clark said: “The Climate Justice project in Nsanje is a strong example of how we in Scotland are able to help the poorest communities around the world adapt to the damaging effects of climate change. During my visit, I saw first-hand how it is wrecking the lives of those who have done the least to cause it. Here, climate change is very real and it is happening now.”
• For more information about the work done by Christian Aid, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, visit www.christianaid.org.uk
• Christian Aid Week runs from 10-16 May.