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Race to prevent disease outbreaks after Malawi floods

Over 42,000 people are living in overcrowded tents after heavy flooding in Malawi. Red Cross is working hard to provide safe water and prevent cholera and malaria outbreaks.

Friday January 30, 2015

Malawi faces devastating floods after weeks of heavy rain. Photo: Malawi Red Cross.

With over a third of Malawi devastated by floods, the International Red Cross Movement is racing to help 42,000 desperate people.  

Secretary-General Ethel Kaimila of Malawi Red Cross Society has a grim report from the stricken districts. "Floods are a common occurrence in Malawi but nothing so desperate as this has been seen for more than a decade.  

"Our task right now is to ensure that people survive and to alleviate the appalling conditions so many are in. We must feed them, shelter them, ensure they have safe water and sanitation, and deal with the growing threat to their health. And when that is done we must help them to recover and resettle."  

Red Cross aims to meet the immediate needs of 7,660 households for nine months. People have fled to improvised camps, where tents are overflowing. The risk of disease grows by the day. Water sources are contaminated, sanitation is poor and without fast intervention, water-related diseases would seem to be inevitable. Cholera is endemic and as flood waters recede, stands of stagnant water - breeding grounds for mosquitoes - will increase the spread of malaria. Poor shelter and exposure to the elements only heighten the dangers to health.  

Working across four districts, Red Cross aims to provide safe water and sanitation, health and care services, shelter and food distribution where appropriate.   It is also important to reunite families the floods have separated. Across the devastated south, people lost sight of loved ones in the chaos of evacuation, and children on their own in makeshift camps are of special Red Cross concern.  

Although floodwaters have receded, more rain is in the way. Michael Charles from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) believes that Malawi will need long-term help to survive the double blow of heavy floods following years of drought.  

"People have been pushed to the limit," says Charles. "They have lost all they had: homes, food stocks, crops, livestock. What little they had is now gone.  

"Ask people in the camps about going home and they say: home to what? How will they put food on the table, how will they survive the next calamity, how will school fees be paid, what is the future for children who labour in the fields instead of the classroom?"  

By John Sparrow, IFRC   

Find out more about Red Cross in Malawi