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From floods to hunger: why we must address the long-term impact of Cyclone Idai

Cyclone Idai has caused widespread destruction to life and property across Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. In Malawi alone, heavy rains and floods have affected more than one million people, particularly in districts in the South such as Phalombe and Nsanje. Lives have been lost, homes, farmland, livestock and possessions washed away. Nearly 100,000 people have been displaced. The immediate focus of the international community is on relief and recovery; but we will have to pivot swiftly to rehabilitation, long-term recovery and building people’s resilience to future shocks.

Esparanza Maria, a 25-year-old day worker from Nhamatanda, helps load boxes containing essential household supplies from a warehouse to a truck. The items will be distributed the next day in the village of Ndeja. "It makes me feel good to be able to help

For a country like Malawi, where more than 80% of the population relies on rain-fed agriculture to survive and thrive, the weather can be a best friend or  worst enemy.  Malawians are familiar with frequent dry spells and floods. The impact of the El-Niño weather system in 2015-16 was the worst in 35 years, preceded by a cycle of dry spells and floods in 2014-15, and followed by a prolonged dry spell in the 2017-18 summer cropping season. Agricultural output is unpredictable, which means  food and nutrition insecurity is a huge issue. The country currently ranks 87 among 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index. Nearly one in every four Malawian children is too short for their age (stunted), and almost 3% of all children are too thin for their height (wasted). Repeated cycles of malnutrition and climate shocks such as Cyclone Idai are adversely affecting physical and brain development in the majority of Malawians, with life-long consequences.

One step forward, two steps back

In recent years, the Malawian government has made some progress in reducing childhood stunting, and even has a national strategy on food and nutrition security. But calamities like Cyclone Idai set such efforts back. Which is why, we must do more to strengthen food and nutrition security, and livelihoods even before disaster strikes.

March-April is the country’s main harvest season, but the recent floods caused by the cyclone have  destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of  maize, rice, millet, and sorghum crops – some areas have lost up to 80% of their harvest. Grain stocks and planting seeds for the next season, as well as land quality, have also been damaged.  Displaced families face a long wait to be able to go back to their lands, rebuild homes, and prepare their lands once again for sowing. Once again, this will result in multiple seasons of hunger and malnutrition.  

Short and long-term support is needed

When disasters like Cyclone Idai strike, organisations like Concern have to be both near as well as far sighted. In the short term, our focus is on survival and dignity of life. For example, we are  providing essentials such as shelter items, mosquito nets and hygiene kits, and of course, food. Flooding has already increased the risk of water borne diseases like cholera, and malnourished children are more likely to fall prey to such infections, and die from them. So as well as ensuring the most vulnerable get adequate nutrition, we are helping people access clean water.

In addition, over the next few weeks there is a chance for families to replant some of their crops. Concern will be providing them with seeds and tools so they don’t miss this narrow window of opportunity. In the longer term, we will also need to help people rebuild their livelihoods in a way that makes them more resilient to future climate shocks. Our ongoing work on climate smart agriculture, such as introducing drought-resistant seeds for instance, is an important part of this long-term support.