Scots aid workers help rebuild flood-hit Malawi communities

The loss of crops washed away by the rains has seen the country facing its worst food crisis in decades. Picture: Contributed
The loss of crops washed away by the rains has seen the country facing its worst food crisis in decades. Picture: Contributed
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Scottish aid workers have been helping rebuild communities in south-east Africa that were destroyed by severe flooding in early 2015.

Devastating floods engulfed large parts of Malawi at the start of last year as the worst rainy season in two decades left entire villages annihilated and vast swathes of land under water.

Jen Clark of Tearfund with the Short family outside their recently rebuilt home. Picture: Contributed

Jen Clark of Tearfund with the Short family outside their recently rebuilt home. Picture: Contributed

The disaster claimed 176 lives and forced nearly a quarter of a million people to flee from their homes.

Less than a year on, much progress has been made. However, these fragile communities, many of which depend on subsistence farming for survival, are now facing several new challenges. Jen Clark, from the Christian charity Tearfund Scotland, was in some of the worst-hit regions just after the rains struck.

She recently returned to find out how life has been for families caught up in the disaster, the latest in a series of extreme weather events that have been linked with climate change.

She visited areas in the south of the country, close to the Shire river, which burst its banks and wiped out hundreds of villages.

I have met mothers who don’t know how they are going to feed their children, and families who are living in fear of what might happen to them whenever the rains come back this season

Jen Clark

There she witnessed first-hand how Tearfund and other organisations have been helping people rebuild their lives and prepare for the forthcoming rainy reason. But she also discovered a country on the brink of its worst food crisis in a decade.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 2.8 million people across Malawi will face hunger in coming months – a situation that has been greatly exacerbated by recent events.

Following reports of increasing food shortage and hunger problems, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) is carrying out a mass screening for malnutrition in children under five across 25 districts in Malawi, covering 90 per cent of the country.

Ms Clark met refugees sheltering at two of the region’s evacuation camps in early February, where international teams have been working hard on the ground to provide emergency supplies such as blankets, food, cooking utensils, buckets and clothes.

• READ MORE: Scots helping Malawi rebuild after floods

“When I met with families here in Malawi earlier this year, it was clear that the need for help was huge,” she said.

“There was a lot of loss, a lot of suffering. Life was very difficult for many people.

“They told me the rains were heavier than they had ever known them to be. Some areas had experienced a month’s worth of rain in just 24 hours.

“It was encouraging to see the response effort at that time and hear how families were being helped back on their feet.”

Now these same communities are facing several new threats as a result of last season’s floods, including starvation.

“The changing climate is having a devastating effect on families trying to get back on track and make ends meet.

“What I am seeing now is the very real knock-on effect of some of the most extreme weather conditions this country has ever experienced.

“The rains washed away crops on a huge scale. Everything they were growing and trying to build was suddenly gone.

“This was followed by a period of drought, which made survival even more difficult for the most vulnerable – so much so that now, without the harvest so many depend on to survive, people across Malawi are experiencing intense hunger. I have met mothers who don’t know how they are going to feed their children, and families who are living in fear of what might happen to them whenever the rains come back this season, and no one really knows when that might be.”

The work being carried out in Malawi by Tearfund and its partners includes efforts to help the country develop increased resilience to changing weather patterns over the long term.

Earlier First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government’s Climate Justice Fund is to be increased by an additional £12m over the next four years.

Through Tearfund’s partner organisation, Eagles, communities are being trained in new farming techniques and supplied with seeds that are less susceptible to the impact of the changing climate.

• READ MORE: Scots charity helps Bolivian community get more out of cacao

Residents are also encouraged to plant trees along riverbanks to help guard against soil erosion and provide better defences against flooding.

Work to raise awareness of the need for environmental sustainability is also starting to show results. Many villages are now setting out to identify potential risks in advance and taking steps to mitigate future problems. Measures include establishing tree nurseries and planting forests to counteract rapid water run-off in the event of heavy rainfall, which can lead to flooding.

Fredson Short explained how similar work in his own community is transforming life: “In the past we used to have rains from October and we would have already planted in preparation.

“Now it is November and we have no rains. Last year they came late in January, and they were too strong. There is a big change in the climate. Here we depend on agriculture, but it is not as it used to be. And now people don’t have food.

“But we have been taught about agriculture and conservation farming. I have plans to do this on one acre of my land. I want to plant maize. With the change of climate if we just plant maize, like we used to, then the floods would sweep everything from the field. Now we have been given seeds which are more resilient to water and to drought.

“With the new ones it takes three months before it is ready for harvest, so the hunger period is reduced. This is making life much easier.

“As a community we are more prepared for problems than we were before. We plant trees and we know about the risks.

“I am also being enabled to support my family in new ways. I received goats, and this has helped me to rebuild my home and feed my children.

“If Tearfund had not been in this village when that flood came, we would have had nothing. But from the goats we were able to build our house. We can dream once again.”

Ms Clark said: “It is great to see first-hand how climate justice funding from the Scottish Government is already helping people in Malawi adapt to the changing climate and prepare for any potential disasters which may occur in future.

“As well as enabling communities to rebuild, Tearfund’s work is empowering people to become more resilient, which is absolutely vital in order to survive.

“The Scottish Government’s recent announcement about further funding for projects like this is a very positive one because there are still too many situations where people are not able to respond effectively to the erratic conditions in which they find themselves.

“We want to see more families across Malawi kept safe and with the means to provide for themselves so that they and their children can have hope for the future.”