The Worst Flood in 50 Years Is Probably Not Even on Your Radar

A third of a million people have been displaced, and it's happening in the world's poorest country.

Malawians displaced by torrential rains and floods take shelter in tents in the Milima area of Chikhwawa, Malawi, on Jan. 15. (Photo: Bonex Julius/Getty Images)

Feb 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

More heavy rainfall ravaged Malawi last week, in what locals are calling the worst flood to hit the struggling southern African nation in the last 50 years.

Flooding is common during the country’s rainy season, which generally begins in the fall. But this year’s relentless downpours, which lasted through January and were coupled with heavy winds, have left the world's poorest country in ruins.

Families saw their homes collapse and their meager possessions destroyed, and many clung to trees or sought higher ground as they awaited rescue by boat or helicopter. So far, 1.5 million citizens have been affected, with more than 100 people confirmed dead, 172 missing, 645 injured, and at least 336,000 homeless, according to a Feb. 5 estimate from the U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination.

These numbers are an indicator of a humanitarian disaster in the making.

With the country ill-equipped for such widespread floods, citizens are forced into overcrowded camps with limited supplies. Conditions are dangerous for women and girls, who fear sexual assault. Several news outlets also report male camp workers demanding sex in exchange for food—a practice that will likely increase the rate of HIV transmission for a country where 10 percent of the adult population tests positive for the disease, according to figures from UNAIDS. Roughly 4 percent of children in the country suffer from severe malnutrition, making them much more susceptible to illness during times of disaster, when food supplies are limited, according to UNICEF.

Health workers are also on the lookout for an increase in waterborne illnesses such as malaria, dysentery, and cholera; the likelihood of disease spreading is further heightened by a shortage of mosquito nets and limited access to bathrooms, Malawian news source Nyasa Times reported. The problem is estimated to worsen in coming months as pooled waters turn into swamps.

Both UNICEF and the United Nations World Food Programme have deployed health services and food to the country, and each organization has been able to reach the hardest hit and most remote districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje.

But even after the rains subside, the country faces a long road to recovery. Homes in the region are commonly built from homemade bricks, and many are damaged beyond repair. Expected food shortages seem to be the main concern, however, as the hardest hit areas are also the source of the bulk of the nation’s crops.

The country will have to rely largely on assistance from non governmental organizations such as UNICEF, Oxfam, and the Red Cross to get back on its feet. European donors have also opted to sidestep the Malawian government, sending aid directly through relief groups pending an investigation into government officials’ alleged prior misappropriation of funds.

To help, you can make a donation to UNICEF.