Karonga is the northernmost district of Malawi, bordered by Lake Malawi on the East, by the Songwe River (border with Tanzania) on the North and the Nyika Plateau and highlands on the West and South. The District headquarters (the Boma) are approximately six hours drive from Lilongwe (Malawi's capital city and location of the closest international airport). Mzuzu, a major commercial city, is three hours drive away and has an airport which receives light aircraft flights most days from Lilongwe. Mbeya in Tanzania is five hours to the north.
The population (approximately 270,000 in 2009, increasing at 3 % per annum: crude birth rate c. 40/1000, infant mortality c.15 %) is rural, dependent upon subsistence agriculture and fish from the lake. Household crop production (chiefly cassava, maize, sweet potatoes and rice) is the main source of food for all households. Cassava consumption is significant, accounting for 45%, 34% and 28% of consumption for the 'poor',' middle' and 'better-off' respectively. 'Poor' and 'middle' households purchase staple (for example, maize) and non-staple (for example, sugar) foods to supplement domestic production. Despite larger livestock holdings, milk and meat consumption is insignificant for most households because animals are used as a source of income rather than for direct consumption.
After 3 months of low intensity seismological activity, the area was hit by a sequence of stronger earthquakes ranging between 5,4 to 6.0 on the scale of Richter, between 6 and 20 December 2009. Seismological activity continues and is taking the form of an earthquake swarm. There is no certainty about when this is expected to halt.
The humanitarian profile of this natural disaster is as much determined by each physical occurrence, as by the knock on effect of the sequence of earthquakes. On 11 December the first assessments indicated that 2752 families had been affected. This rose to 3860 on 18 December and at 20 December the figure was placed by Senior Officials In DoDMA (the national disaster management authority) at 4677. This last figure however does not take into account the impact of the last earthquake of 20 December which measured 6.0 on the scale of Richter. The Government of Malawi has formally declared a national emergency on 21 December.
Immediately after severe shocks were felt on 12 December, and cracks have appeared in the ground, some with water seepage, the Government decide to use a nearby military camp (Mulinda camp) as refuge given the uncertainty and worry this gave to the local population. Initial reports indicated that some 600 families or 3000 people has taken shelter there. A visit by UNICEF on 15 December indicated that 1800 people had remained in the camp. However, people seem to be moving in and out, seeking shelter and relief. DoDMA officially keeps the number of displaced at 3000.
In total some 1000 houses have been reported to have collapsed, while some 2900 houses have been reported to have sustained damage of some sort - construction standards vary widely from thatched roofed mud huts, to tin topped stone structures in the urban area. In total over 300 people have been wounded, and 4 have been killed. The human impact on the earthquake of 20 December has been most severe in Karonga town; people had started to sleep inside their often weakened houses again due to the arrival of seasonal rains and as the tremor hit in the middle of the night, many were wounded by falling debris. Following this latest quake, there is panic and much uncertainty in the area. The DoDMA have indicated that shelter needs are to be regarded as urgent. Government has formally approached the EU and WFP for assistance, but otherwise has only issued general statements seeking support and relief.