By Denis Mzembe
BLANTYRE, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Heavy rains have spread floods to a seventh district of Malawi, destroying homes and sweeping away crops in a country that is already struggling with serious food shortages.
President Bakili Muluzi has declared a state of disaster in affected areas. The floods have killed at least seven people and damaged bridges and electricity lines, causing power cuts.
Tens of thousands have been made homeless this month as rains have pounded the small southern African country and parts of neighbouring Mozambique.
In the latest stricken area of Rumphi, a mountainous area in the north of Malawi, District Commissioner Rodney Simwaka said floods had destroyed 3,000 homes and over 3,000 hectares of crops at the weekend.
Rumphi depends largely on cash crops like coffee and tobacco, and grows the main staple maize as well as beans, bananas and sweet potatoes, raising fears that the floods, which followed five consecutive days of rain, would exacerbate hunger.
A third of Malawi's 10 million people face food shortages -- part of a regional food crisis that threatens an estimated 14 million people across southern Africa with starvation.
"If nothing is done quickly there will be disaster of untold proportion," Simwaka told Reuters by phone from the town of Rumphi, adding that almost 10,000 people were homeless because of the floods, which had also damaged bridges and cut off roads.
Many of the homeless had taken refuge in schools and churches which had had their roofs ripped off by the storm.
"The figure of the affected households and property could be much higher as some areas could not be accessed," said Simwaka.
He called for government, charitable organisations and other well-wishers to help the displaced urgently by sending food, clothing and medical supplies since most of them could rescue next to nothing as they fled the rising waters.
Floods killed at least 700 people in Mozambique in 2000 and made hundreds of thousands homeless, prompting the government to appeal for half a billion dollars in foreign aid.
Lucius Chikuni, who heads a Malawi government commission to deal with disasters, told Reuters his department was rushing food and plastic tents to flooded areas, but said his workers had not yet visited Rumphi to assess the situation.
Chikuni noted meteorologists' warnings of a weather system developing in the Atlantic Ocean which might cause more rains in southern Africa after Cyclone Delfina, which has moved off towards Madagascar in the Indian Ocean after causing heavy rains across southern Africa.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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