Torrential rains swept through Malawi and Mozambique during the first week of the new year, causing severe flooding in several districts of the two countries and rendering thousands of people homeless.
No lives were reported to be lost in Mozambique, but in Malawi, eight people were washed away by flash floods as they tended their fields early in the morning.
The Mozambique and Malawi Red Cross Societies were immediately called upon by local authorities, and responded instantly to the disaster. The Federation's regional office in Harare remains in constant contact with the National Societies and is providing all necessary support needed.
In Malawi, the floods destroyed some 200 households in the central districts of Salima and Ntcheu, and around 100 homes in the southern district of Balaka. Most of the families affected also lost their crops and garden plots in the floods.
The damage to crops and houses is a serious blow to the population of these communities, many of whom already rely on food distributions from international aid agencies for survival. Food shortages caused by a prolonged drought are threatening more than one-third of the country's 10 million people.
The Malawi Red Cross carried out a preliminary assessment in the affected areas last week, lead by Secretary General McBain Kanongodza. Three teams trained in regional disaster response were dispatched today to conduct a more in-depth survey of the situation - assessing loss of houses, crops and livestock - and to establish list of families in need of immediate assistance.
"Food is definitely the main concern of the people we interviewed during our mission," says Kanongodza. "Most of the flood victims are already receiving food aid, and now they have been made even more destitute by losing their homes and their plots."
Water and sanitation are also of grave concern, as most people in these districts use water from untreated sources and latrines are scarce. Any stagnant water offers the perfect breeding ground for waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and cholera.
The Malawi Red Cross has already dispatched tarpaulins and blankets from its emergency stock to be distributed in the coming days to those most in need. Each family will also receive a 50 kg bag of maize, procured by the Malawi Red Cross with funds released through the Federation's food security operation.
Kanongodza says the floods were very localized, and are therefore not likely to have a huge impact on the overall food security situation in the country. In most instances, he explained, there would only be a need for a one-off Red Cross intervention, as general food distributions in Salima, Ntcheu and Balaka are carried out by other agencies.
"What worries me is how early we saw these floods," he said. "Traditionally we would expect them in March. This leaves the question open whether there will be real floods later on, which then could seriously deepen the food crisis."
In Mozambique, where memories of devastating floods in 2000 and 2001 and still fresh, the same tropical storm pattern sent torrential rains sweeping through the northern provinces of Nampula and Zambesia.
The extensive disaster response experience acquired in those two consecutive years of flooding were put to good use, the Mozambique Red Cross immediately coming to the assistance of some 400 affected families.
First aid posts and water chlorinating points have been established, and teams of volunteers conducting health education have been encouraging people to relocate to higher grounds.
The Federation has released 70,000 Swiss francs from its emergency funds for immediate Red Cross response. Water levels have risen by some five metres in the main rivers of Zambesia and Tete provinces, and, with heavy rains continuing, the Mozambique Red Cross remains on red alert.