One year after floods, a fragile recovery

January 26, 2016
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Crystal Wells

Last January, devastating floods hit Southern Africa, taking lives, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, and destroying critical farmland. In Malawi, as families struggle to get back on their feet, they’re now faced with a different problem: extremely dry weather could decimate another year of crops. Concern is working with hundreds of families to help them recover and has found an unlikely ally in the very thing that last year wrought the destruction — the Shire River.

Row after row of dusty white tents bake under the midday sun on the outskirts of Thomsen village, a humming market town in the Nsanje district of Malawi. The sounds of a pot being stirred and a child murmuring lead us to a clearing, where Mercy Gomani sits nursing a boy. Her family is among the last inhabitants of this temporary camp, which sprang up after the flooding disaster hit this part of Southern Africa on January 14th, 2015.

“What my eyes saw, I cannot forget. We will not go back to live there.”

“We were rescued by God’s grace,” she recalls. “Our home and all our possessions were washed away.” Her story is similar to that of thousands of others who ran for their lives and climbed trees to escape the sudden rise of the Shire River, swollen from days of heavy rain. But this story has a tragic twist. “My husband tried to stay and rescue some of our belongings… but he got washed away,” she says. He and hundreds of others were never seen again.

Mercy Gomani with the five of her eight children

Mercy Gomani with the five of her eight children near her temporary tented home at Thomsen village in Nsanje district, Malawi. Mercy lost her home and all her possessions in the floods of January 2015 and her husband was drowned. She has been helped by Concern with emergency supplies and with seeds, fertilizer and goats. Photo: Kieran McConville

In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, Mercy and her eight children — ranging in age from eighteen months to 23 years — moved to this temporary tented village. Her family was traumatized. “What my eyes saw, I cannot forget. We will not go back to live there.”

She does, however, have to go “back” every day, because her family’s only source of food is her farm on the edge of the Shire flood plain. The floods washed everything away and Mercy was forced to start again.

A fragile recovery

Concern stepped in to help replace what Mercy and hundreds of other families lost, providing seeds and fertilizer for winter crops. Mercy has been able to start rebuilding a life for herself and her family.

“Sometimes we survive on eating water lilies,” she says.

But challenges remain. This is an El Niño year, meaning global climate patterns are subject to extremes, and the resulting dry conditions are wreaking havoc on the staple crop. “The maize did not do well — a lot of it just withered,” Mercy explains. “Some of the vegetables were okay.” In the interim, she has managed to get occasional jobs to help support the family, but “sometimes we survive on eating water lilies,” she says.

An aerial view of the flooding along the Licungo River

An aerial view of the flooding along the Licungo River, Mozambique, caused by the same rains that swelled Malawi’s Shire River and led to catastrophic crop failure across the region. Photo: Crystal Wells

In the face of a second crisis, hope

As of this month, over 2.8 million people in Malawi are in need of assistance to ensure they have enough food to survive. Seeds were planted in December when the annual rains started. But if the current dry spells continue, crops will fail for the second year running. Those who lost almost everything in the floods of 2015 and who worked so hard to rebuild their livelihoods will face the devastation of another failed harvest.

For Mercy and many others, there is still hope. Using water from the Shire River, Concern will be working to help thousands of families to re-plant this March, with the harvest due in July. It costs only about $27 to provide a family like Mercy’s with seeds and training to plant maize and vegetables and to ensure a good crop of varied, nutritious food — and hope for a better future.


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