OPINION: Malawi, the harm after the storm

Flood water levels are subsiding in Malawi and a predicted cyclone crossing over from Mozambique into the landlocked country now seems unlikely. With this, relief groups have shifted their attention from evacuations to distributing medical supplies and food to displacement camps in the effected districts.

However, there are still people who have not been reached in remote villages due to bridge collapses and the extent of the flood damage. Last week the Malawian government announced that it would send boats to these villages where around 6,000 need to be evacuated. This is one of the jobs Rescue South Africa intended to do on its mission here, but because the team couldn't get their specialised equipment released by Customs and the Department of International Relations back home, they've decided to focus on aid distribution and primary medical treatment instead.

The aid is meant for people who've lost their homes and supply of maize beans and cooking oil in the floods. Many of these people are now stuck in displacement camps run by local and international aid groups, which often aren't able to set up toilets or water filtering systems.

Maize plants, which are a staple crop in Malawi, were destroyed by flood waters in several districts. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN.

White tents with people sitting around the previous night's cooking fire have become a familiar site when travelling through the worst-affected areas. During the day children play in the river or have a game of soccer on an open piece of land, while mothers wash the clothes they could salvage from the floods, and cook maize meal and beans. Many others spend their days resting inside the tents, mothers nursing their malnourished children with high-energy biscuits and boiled river water. Although the people in the camps come from different villages, sometimes dozens of kilometres apart, their description of how the floods unfolded is disturbingly similar.

Thirty-year old Bruno Donsa fled with his wife and two daughters from his smallholding farm with a five-room house on the banks of the Ntamoyo river in Oceana as soon as the flash floods hit the Nsanje district. He says his house collapsed, and 10 cows and five goats were washed away by the force of the water. His family survived the flooding with only the clothes on their back.

"I saw the water coming [down the river] very fast in the morning, it made the houses fall down and washed away our stuff. We started communicating with others, and tried to run away to the other side of the village, but after a few minutes, we couldn't escape," he explained. Donsa now volunteers for the Malawian Red Cross as an interpreter at its displacement camp in Bangula. "Many people here have lost houses, food everything. Some lost relatives. Children, mothers and fathers. There are no bodies to have a funeral," he says.

Dozens of camps like the one in Bangula exist across the south and east of Malawi. Their primary objective is to keep the people alive until they're relatively healthy and have enough food, water and building supplies to restart their lives. The NGOs running the camps have thus become indispensable. One of the biggest contributors of relief in Nsanje, Chikwawa, Phlaombe and Mulanje, is the World Food Programme (WFP), which has already reached 150,000 people. The aid has reached isolated villages through helicopter drops and supply trucks, with groups such as Rescue South Africa making the necessary manpower available. The WFP provides high-energy biscuits, maize meal, a fortified corn bread, vegetable oil and beans.

A woman moves her sleeping child out of the sun as flood victims seek shelter under trees at a temporary camp in Bangula, Malawi, on 25 January 2015. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN.

WFP Malawi spokesperson Fitina Khonje says while the communities still lack basic sanitation and clean water in some cases, the food is enough to keep them going for now. "The people are very happy that at least they have some food. You know, during these times when there is an emergency, there are so many needs. But food is one of the most important needs that has to be fulfilled. I met this other lady [during an aid delivery] with four daughters, who had a food garden filled with crops and big bags of maize in her house. The floods washed it all away and they now rely solely on WFP relief packs," Khonje says.

The lack of sanitation and clean water is fast taking centre stage in the aftermath of the floods. The risk of a disease outbreak is growing, with cholera and diarrhoea becoming the most probable threats to rural communities. Relief group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) estimated that in one of their camps in Nsanje, a third of the children under five they have diagnosed are suffering from diarrhoea. There are also large areas where communities now live around stagnant water.

Rescue SA team doctor Pankil Patel says one of the biggest risks along the rivers that have broken their banks is to children. "The main threat is water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. Most the children here [in Bangula] seem malnourished and because of the flood the delivery of aid from some relief organisations has been disrupted. Stagnant water is a problem but also cross contamination, when there's a mix of faeces and people using the river for drinking and bathing purposes. The fish also carry a risk of infecting people if they are caught on flood planes that are disconnected from the rivers," Patel says.

An MSF doctor attends to an ill infant in Bangula on 25 January 2015. Some 6,500 displaced flood victims sought shelter at the school buildings after their homes were destroyed. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN.

However, the most life threatening impact of the floods falls on HIV/Aids patients. The villages in the Nsanje district, which are the worst affected, have the highest prevalence of HIV/Aids in Malawi, at around 60 percent of the population. Most recently reports emerged that the ARV supplies of these patients have been washed away by the floods.

Govan Whittles is an _ Eyewitness News _ reporter based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter: @van1go