Nothing I had seen or read before I left Ireland could have prepared me for the sheer scale of the destruction which Cyclone Idai and the floodwaters have caused in southern Malawi.
The power of the floods were awesome, surging through the low-lying lands, carrying away goats and chickens, tearing down houses, and stripping the lush crops from the fields.
Wherever I went around Nsanje, I could see the devastation. Thatched roofs lay on mounds of mud bricks in villages where once there had been family homes. In other cases, there was just the mounds indicating the outline of where a house had once stood.
But nowhere was the power of the flooding more striking than last Tuesday when I joined Concern World colleagues assessing the extent of the damage in towns and villages which were still submerged by water.
We left in two boats provided by the Malawi Defence Forces, heading south from Nsanje for more than an hour along the Shire river, which runs along the border between Malawi and Mozambique.
We passed endless abandoned villages. Only the skeletal remains of wood houses remained, some still sitting in four or five feet of water. It was complete desolation. Whole villages had just been swept away.
The region was almost deserted, apart from a small number of men who we met who had returned to start repairing their homes or to fish to feed their families.
They spoke about the panic and the rapid evacuation as the floodwaters rose suddenly. Most escaped with just the clothes on their backs and whatever possessions they could carry. Everything else has been lost.
“We were happy to see the water rising to help the harvest but we were surprised to see it continue to rise. That’s when we had to evacuate our wives and children,” explained Fraction Jingeni (71), who we met with his grandson George (17). “We managed to rescue some clothes and kitchen utensils but everything else has been washed away.”
We met Joseph Fole (72) and son Friday (28), who had returned to their village of Katsume to fish and clean. The rest of the family must wait until the floods subside before they return from the displacement camps. Their entire village was washed away, trees are down, and all that is left are a few damaged buildings.
At one stage we got out of our boats and trekked inland for a few kilometres to visit a village. We were knee-deep in mud by the time we got there. Two weeks previously this had been a rich maize field almost ready to harvest. Now it resembled a bog with large streams running through it. There was nothing left on the ground, only soaked earth.
There were three men in the village when we got there. They had returned to fish as food is scarce in the displacement camps which are home to thousands of people from this region until the floodwaters subside. Food and shelter are the top priorities for everybody in Nsanje.
The previous day I visited the Nyachikadza displacement camp which is now home to many of the people who fled these flooded villages. It currently accommodates more than 11,000 people. Food supplies have not arrived for six days and people are hungry. People wait patiently to share cooking utensils – many have lost their own utensils in the floods.
Clean water and sanitation are a major priority in this camp and more than 170 others across southern Malawi. Almost 90,000 Malawians are currently displaced as a result of the floods.
Nyachikadza camp has set up beside a school whose facilities are dangerously inappropriate to meet the needs of the huge influx of residents. It has just 20 toilets for 11,000 residents. Concern Worldwide is working to dig more latrines and is liaising with the local Ministry of Health officials to provide safe drinking water.
The first cases of cholera were reported in Mozambique last week. There is a real fear of cholera and other water-borne diseases in Malawi. Should these diseases spread among the residents, we will be facing a very different crisis, on a much greater scale.
The issue is exacerbated by the overcrowding at the camp. Farmer and mother-of-three, Emily Zebia (23), is currently sharing a tent with 19 other women and children. She arrived at the camp having fled the rapidly rising floodwaters which engulfed her town. She escaped with just her children, a small bundle of clothes and a copy of the Bible.
Concern Worldwide is working with staff in the camps to construct latrines and bathrooms and to provide safe water supplies. Last week we commenced distributing emergency kits containing essential items such as plastic sheeting, cooking utensils, mosquito nets and soap.
While transporting kits to the worst affected areas is challenging, Concern Worldwide is aiming to provide relief support to 45,000 people in the coming days and weeks.
Once the floodwaters subside sufficiently to allow people to return home, we will face a race against the clock to help people to plant a ”winter” crop. If Malawi’s farmers do not plant by April (for a crop which will be ready in June/July) they will have to wait until September/October to plant the summer crops which will not be ready to harvest until this time next year.
Concern Worldwide will provide people with tools and seeds, along with cash transfers to help people restore their homes and non-agriculture livelihoods. It is aiming to assist 90,000 people with these supports.
Concern is running an appeal to raise funds for its Cyclone Idai emergency response. To donate visit www.concern.net