Malawi: More earthquakes expected

News and Press Release
Originally published
LILONGWE, 23 December 2009 (IRIN) - The latest in a series of earthquakes that struck Malawi's northern district of Karonga between 6 and 20 December and left over 4,600 households in need of urgent humanitarian assistance has prompted the government to formally declare a national emergency.

Four people were reportedly killed and more than 260 injured by the earthquakes. Karonga district health officer James Mpunga said most of those requiring medical attention were hit by the falling walls of their houses while they slept.

"Most of the cases that we have received are those of victims who have suffered fractures," Mpunga told IRIN.

James Chiusiwa, deputy commissioner for Malawi's Department of Disaster Management Authority (DODMA) told IRIN "The situation is really bad ... People who were affected by the earthquakes have been shifted to a camp where they are being assisted."

While the full extent of the damage was not yet clear, innitial needs were already evident: "they include tents, especially family tents where each family can be sleeping. At the moment they are all sheltered in communal tents," he said.

Besides immediate temporary shelter materials, water treatment tablets, toilet construction material and new boreholes, were a priority.

"So far the response has been encouraging. Organisations such as UNICEF [the UN Children's Fund], the Red Cross, Chinese nationals in Malawi and others have come ... to assist the injured," he noted.

Not over yet

Chiusiwa said aid agencies and the government were caught off guard by the seismic events: "[They] had initially planned to deal with hail storms, floods and dry spells but natural calamities such as earth quakes were not in our plans because they are a rare occurrence here."

Ranging between 5.4 and 6 on the Richter scale the quakes had been growing in intensity according to a statement released by the UN Resident Coordinator's Office in the capital, Lilongwe, on 22 December.

"Seismological activity continues and is taking the form of an earthquake swarm [sequences of earthquakes in a relatively short period of time]. There is no certainty about when this is expected to halt.

"There is panic and much uncertainty in the area ... as long as the community in Karonga district continues to feel tremors and experience periodically more severe shocks, life will not return to normal. People have been advised to sleep outside" the statement said.

Malawi is situated at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley - essentially a 5,000-kilometer-long fault line that runs north-south from Lebanon to Mozambique - a position that makes the country vulnerable to earthquakes.