LILONGWE, 17 November 2008 (IRIN) - The state of preparedness for a natural disaster in Malawi's flood-prone areas as well as other locales is coming under intense scrutiny ahead of the expected annual rise in the rivers during the rainy season.
The seven areas usually affected by flooding are the districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje, along the lower Shire River, the southern district of Mangochi, the central districts of Salima and Dedza and the northern districts of Karonga and Mzimba.
But the dangers of flash flooding in areas not thought of as high-risk cannot be discounted. After prolonged rains in 1991, more than 1,000 people died in a flash flood in Phalombe district, in southern Malawi.
Annual programmes to teach people living in potentially dangerous flood-prone or low-lying areas to move to higher ground often meet with cultural intransigence.
One villager in the Lower Shire Valley said: "We cannot leave the land that was given to us by our ancestors. We buried them here, we will also be buried here, and here is where we cultivate our crops."
James Chiusiwa, Malawi's Coordinator for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation in the Department of Poverty and Disaster Management Affairs (DoPDMA), said the government was preparing contingency plans, in cooperation with a host of local and international organisations.
"We have involved everyone from government officials to humanitarian organisations and local non-governmental organisations. We are holding meetings with district commissioners from the seven districts that are affected every year, to see how better we can plan before floods wreak havoc," he told IRIN.
A meeting to draw on past lessons is planned with various stakeholders in late November in the capital, Lilongwe.
"The government of Malawi, with support from the United Nations and its non-governmental organisations partners, is in the process of refining its national contingency plan to prepare for the upcoming flood season," Elias Mabaso, of the Regional Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for Southern Africa, told IRIN.
A study, in partnership with the World Bank, is being conducted in one of Malawi's most flood-prone areas, the Shire River Valley, to "look at both preparedness and mitigation measures, and assist in the development of a disaster risk reduction strategy for the whole Lower Shire Valley," Chiusiwa said. "We want to take a step further and move beyond responding to catastrophes every year."
OCHA's Mabaso said: "Government led an effective response to last year's flooding, which saved lives due to disaster preparedness. This year, we are supporting the government to revise its contingency plan, based on current meteorological indications that Malawi will be receiving normal to above normal rainfall for most of the coming season.
"This could mean that more people, livestock and infrastructural damage could occur. The revision of the contingency plan will build on last year's success, to be even better prepared," he said.
Malawi's disaster contingency plan assesses risks such as floods, drought and epidemics, by developing various scenarios, ranging from best-case to worst-case, for each risk.
"For example, if a flood occurs and 300,000 people are affected, it will include things such as search and rescue, [and] where [the flood victims] will be moved to temporarily," Mabaso said.
"In these temporary accommodation centres, which organisations are responsible for food or medicine? Most importantly, it identifies the roles and responsibilities of each organisation during the emergency, and when these actions will be taken," he said.
In July 2008 the European Commission provided ?5m (US$6.3 million) for disaster preparedness in Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi and the Comoros.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) told IRIN that disaster preparedness was the core focus in terms of disaster management.
"Increasingly, our global focus is driven by the concept of 'early warning, early action'. We make resources and personnel available before a disaster hits, drawing on the state-of-the-art monitoring systems we have access to through partnerships with various meteorological and academic institutions," said Matthew Cochrane, IFRC communications manager for southern Africa.
"We now aim to take these warnings and relay them down to community levels where people, having received training by the Red Cross and other organisations, can disseminate the information and the take appropriate action."
Cochrane said a case in point was Mozambique, where floods claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands of people marooned in 2001. "This year , because of the tireless work of organisations such as the Mozambique Red Cross, no one died, and hundreds of thousands of people were effectively evacuated before the water became too high; an unquestionable success that now needs to be replicated in other flood-prone countries."
The IFRC in southern Africa has been working on a Zambezi River Basin Initiative, a cross-border programme that aims to strengthen the resilience of communities living along the Zambezi River.
Cochrane said the IFRC was developing community-based early warning, pre-positioning essential relief supplies, and training volunteers to effectively respond to floods and other disasters.
"We will also be looking at how it can support communities to better withstand disasters, what information and skills they need to be able to overcome this annual problem, or even capitalise on it," he said.
"Remember, not too long ago in this region's history, annual floods were seen as positive because they left fertile soil, for example. How can we support people to rediscover this kind of experience?"
The Malawi Red Cross Society been training local people to monitor water levels and predict the chances of flooding, but a funding shortfall has meant that training could only be carried out in one district.