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La Nina Phenomenon Puts Malawi on Flood Alert

Meteorologists in Malawi are warning of possible flooding during the rainy season, which runs from November to March. The heavy rains would be caused by a weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean called La Niña. It’s defined as cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures that affect global weather patterns, with one result being increased moisture in southern Africa. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Lameck Masina in Blantyre tells us about government efforts to reduce the affect of potential flooding.

The seasonal forecast for the last quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008 has put officials on alert. It says Malawi has a 35 percent chance of above average rainfall, a 40 percent chance of normal rainfall and a 25 percent chance of below average rainfall. For weather analysts, the report is a warning that some parts of the country will experience flooding.

The forecast is based on La Nina – an atmospheric condition often known to cause severe weather around the world, including strong, monsoon-type rainfalls and flooding in Africa and Asia.

Some doubt the accuracy of the forecast – saying past predictions have been wrong.

But government weather analyst Winston Chimwaza says the Department of Meteorology has acquired modern equipment from Europe, including a weather satellite that sends images back to Malawian climatologists.

“We have had the MSG, Meteosat Second Generation, which is actually getting information basing on satellite observations, and we have also acquired four automatic weather stations which have been put in different parts of the country. So with a network of observations, we are likely to get [the right] data, which will help us in forecasting issues” he says.

In response to the threat of flooding, government ministries have come up with a number of measures including the evacuation of people from flood-prone areas to higher ground.

In the past, farmers in those areas have resisted moving to the higher ground, in part because the land is not fertile.

But government official Lilian Ng’oma told the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation that she expects people to comply.

Ng’oma is the commissioner and principle secretary for the Department of Poverty and Disaster Management Affairs in the Office of President and Cabinet:

“This time people are willing to move. We were discussing with the [traditional] chiefs the problems and solutions. And one of the main problems why they were not willing to move is water, so we have reassured them that once they move we will ask the Water Department to give them some boreholes.”

Annual flooding often occurs in most parts of southern Malawi, especially along the River Shire, a tributary of the River Zambezi, which flows into Mozambique.

Last January, floods displaced about 8,000 families in 400 villages in the southern district of Chikwawa, along the upper reaches of the River Shire. In nearby Nsanje District, another 116 villages were flooded, destroying about 2,600 homes.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security is also making efforts to reduce the damage.

Sanderson Juwawo is the land conservation specialist in the Blantyre Agriculture Development Division of the Ministry of Agriculture in southern Malawi. He says the division is encouraging farmers in the uplands to practice farming methods that will help contain the rains and prevent the waters from flooding lowland farms:

“For the time being, we are continuing to encourage smallholder farmers to construct ridges on the contours so that as much water as possible is actually conserved within their fields. At the same time, [farmers should build ditches to prevent the amount of water flowing] into those rivers, which are prone to flooding. [This will reduce] runoff in the waterways.”

The farmers are also advised to replant their seeds after flooding. Generally, the government helps provide supplies.

According to IRIN -- the news outlet of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -- the principal secretary in the Ministry of Water Development and Irrigation, Andrina Michiela, says plans have been made to provide clean drinking water and boreholes for affected areas. Land conservation specialist Sanderson Juwawo says the government plans to intensify its reforestation programs. Trees and bushes would help hold the soil in place and would absorb some of the water. That plan, he says, would be a long-term effort, and would be contingent on sustained funding.