Responding to the Malawi Floods: Mission Possible!

The beginning of 2015 brought torrential rain to the southern regions of Malawi, resulting in historic flooding and prompting the President of Malawi to declare a state of emergency across 15 of the country’s 28 districts. More than 600,000 people are in need of food assistance.

Under the leadership of Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs, relevant government ministries and departments have taken the lead in coordinating the response under areas such as food security, water and sanitation, shelter, and camp management and logistics. The Logistics Cluster is led by the Ministry of Transport and co-led by WFP.

Operational challenges were compounded by the nature of the flooding in the southern region of the country, especially the Nsanje district, which lies south of a large mountain range. As heavy rain hit the mountains, the water flowed south, flooding the Shire river and causing it to burst its banks in excess of 1km in each direction. As a result, two islands were created, isolating more than 100,000 people that were initially only accessible by air. In response, WFP contracted three helicopters, facilitated by the Logistics Cluster, which shuttled food, relief items and humanitarian workers to isolated areas to deliver life-saving assistance.

At the end of March, air operations were discontinued as receding flood waters created opened access to water and land routes. Of the locations that were still inaccessible by road, WFP and Logistics Cluster staff deployed an airboat, which has proven to be the only way to reach vulnerable populations that remain cut-off. An airboat, which is also known as a fanboat, has a flat bottom and is designed specifically for this type of environment. Other boats failed to be of use due to the sand, silt, and low water levels that left their propellers damaged. It is currently transporting passengers from the parts of Nsanje district to the area now known as Makhanga Island, allowing them to reach those still in need.

So far, the airboat has carried over 100 passengers from a range of humanitarian actors including UNOCHA, IOM, Goal and various department within the authorities involved in the humanitarian response.