It is hard to put into words just how soul-destroying it is to see television footage of vast swathes of flooded fields in Malawi following the havoc wrecked by Cyclone Idai, writes Concern's Director of International Programmes Anne O'Mahony.
Anne O'Mahony and Stawa James in Malawi. Photo: Concern Worldwide
Just three weeks ago I visited Malawi and saw the vibrant maize crop which was due to be harvested in a month’s time. Following a wet season when the rains fell and the crops grew, the maize was tall and strong wherever I went.
It was the ‘hungry season’ in Malawi – that time of the year when people were trying to stretch what was left of their last harvest while waiting for the current crop to mature. There was a great sense of hope and anticipation that after all the hard work this would be a good harvest.
But then the cyclone hit.
This rich harvest, which was within touching distance for this hungry population, was snatched away.
Concern’s teams working in some of the worst hit districts are reporting that between 80% to 100% of the harvest has been destroyed. It is difficult to explain just how devastating an impact the floods have had.
A series of devastating weather
I met Stawa (pictured above), a farmer who had adopted conservation agriculture techniques to get the most from her acre of land. She prepared the land, spread the mulch, added locally prepared fertilizer and planted her crop by hand, one seed at a time.
She proudly walked me through her field where the maize was standing over 3 metres tall, each stalk with multiple cobs, almost ready to be hand-picked. It's all destroyed. The backbreaking work was for nothing. But more importantly the food and income for her family for the next year is gone. For Stawa and the subsistence farmers we work with this is devastating.
The floods are just the latest in a series of extreme weather conditions which have plagued Malawi farmers as they struggle to feed their families. They were hit by serious floods in 2015, and experienced droughts and pro-longed dry spells for the last three years.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with limited capacity to cope with such disasters. Even prior to the current floods, 3.4 million in the south of the country were dependent on external supports in order to have sufficient food. And now this.
Meeting the immediate needs
Concern has been working in Malawi since 2002, ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable have access to the basic assets they need for a dignified, healthy life. Today, as the scale of the damage is still being assessed, our staff on the ground are working with local communities to meet their immediate needs and to help people get back on their feet.
The immediate needs are water and sanitation facilities for the 90,000 people who have been displaced by the heavy rains and floods. Houses have collapsed, while others have been washed away. Livestock are lost and large swathes of crops are submerged. Over 900,000 people have been affected.
Many of those displaced are being temporarily accommodated in makeshift camps. In many cases schools and churches are being used to house huge numbers of people. They do not have sufficient toilet facilities. This, combined with high water levels, mean there is a very real risk of diseases such as Cholera and Malaria.
Concern is responding with essential items such as cooking utensils, mosquito nets, soap and plastic sheeting. We are building latrines and shower facilities in the temporary camps.
Looking to the future
Concern staff with help from the Malawi Defence Forces assess the damage to communities along the river Shire. This one has been completely submerged. A few local men have come back by canoe to assess the damage for themselves. Photo: Gavin Douglas/ Concern Worldwide
We are also already looking to the future. When the waters subside it is essential that farmers can plant quick maturing ‘winter crops’ to enable them to feed themselves. We will provide seeds, tools and assist in repairing irrigation systems which were damaged by the flood waters.
For the coming months these communities will need food and cash supports to enable them rebuild their lives and we will be there to assist them.
We can only do this work with the financial support of the Irish public. Concern launched its Cyclone Idai appeal this week to raise €5m to fund our response in Malawi.
With your support we will help families and their communities recover from Cyclone Idai.
An edited version of this blog was published by the Sunday Independent on March 23, 2019.
You can help
We have launched an emergency appeal to help those in need in Malawi. Not only are people in desperate need right now, but almost all crops — which were ready to harvest — have been lost to the floods. Please help by donating what you can.