Working with UNICEF in emergency situations always brings new learning. Yesterday was no exception – don’t stand close to a helicopter when it is taking off from a dusty field. Failing to follow the local crowd of onlookers who swiftly disappeared as soon as the blades began to rotate, I was left covered in dust – and will remember to pay keener attention in future.
I’m in the most southerly district of Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Southern Africa, to assist with the response to the floods that have affected 15 districts in the country. Flooding has submerged villages; wiped away homes, crops and livestock; and left around 120,000 people displaced. The helicopters are playing a crucial role, as today, two weeks after the heavy rains fell, there are still 26,000 people marooned in an area cut off from land access.
UNICEF has managed to deliver some of our Oral Rehydration Salt (ORS) supplies for treating diarrhoea and dehydration in young children. Whilst we await our new cargo to arrive from the capital, Lilongwe, we have tapped into supplies positioned in previous years to treat cholera outbreaks and other emergencies. ORS is effective but needs clean, safe water too, and that is another concern. With only two army helicopters and one army boat operating, not enough is getting through.
As another helicopter lands and I meet some of the joint UN team who have been doing an aerial assessment of the marooned villages. They are concerned, especially at the lack of clean water sources and shelter. The urgent need for more air and water transport occupies them all, and they rush off back to the central office to see how helicopters and boats can be swiftly shipped in.
The good news here – and there isn’t much – is that the water is receding. When I flew over the affected area 4 days ago, it was a vast shimmering mass of water, punctuated occasionally by a rooftop or washed out bridge. Today there are clear signs that the water is going down. And yet at Bangula Primary School more and more people continue to arrive.
“This is supposed to be a place of learning, but for the last two weeks it has become a huge centre of refuge,” says Larry Nkhani, Principal of Bangula Primary. The camp first had a few hundred survivors, but today numbers have swelled to over four thousand. The classrooms are overcrowded and the toilets are over-used.
Crowded conditions, stagnant water and a lack of sanitation facilities can be a deadly mix for young children vulnerable to diarrhoea and water-borne diseases. Luckily UNICEF has partnered with Goal Malawi who were already active in the district building latrines in schools. They switched their focus to temporary latrines in the camps and within two days had mobilised materials and labour.
Visiting another centre in the neighbouring district of Chikwawa, we met up with the Goal team. And as we talked the toilets were literally assembled before our eyes. Pretty impressive. As we toured the school the latrines were literally constructed before our eyes.
And this is again one of the inspiring things about disaster response. Many of those involved in the response move mountains to get things done fast. Having these latrines completed in two days, with handwashing stations and clean water, will help prevent disease outbreaks and hopefully enable families to rebuild their lives faster.
And that’s critical to ensure that Malawi doesn’t feel the pain of these floods, long after the waters have gone.
Angela Travis is the Chief of Communication at UNICEF Malawi.