Since early February 2023, the weather forecasts on Cyclone Freddy were followed almost hourly in our Trócaire office in Lilongwe, Malawi. Trócaire and partner organisations worked with village protection committees and Chiefs to ensure adequate warnings were given to people living in areas that could potentially be impacted. In the lower Shire River basin in southern Malawi, floods are not new to people. Almost every year, they face severe flooding and people are encouraged by their local leaders to move their families and livestock to higher ground.
Cyclone Freddy first made landfall in southern Africa on 24 February 2023, causing havoc in neighbouring Mozambique, and in Madagascar previously. When it left for the Indian Ocean on 1 March, there was a sigh of relief in Malawi; ‘perhaps this year we will not be hit by a cyclone’. People were still recovering and rebuilding from the impacts of Cyclone Ana and tropical Storm Gombe of early 2022, and even from Cyclone Idai of 2019. Yet, no one could have predicted the severity with which Cyclone Freddy, the longest-running tropical storm in history, would return to the continent and hit Malawi.
When it did return, it brought torrential rains to the southern part of Malawi from 11 to 13 March 2023. Rains that caused severe floods, unimaginable apocalypse-like mudslides and landslides, cut off main roads and bridges, destroyed crops, houses, schools, health centres, washed away entire villages and killed hundreds of people, making over half a million people homeless, while also killing thousands of livestock and other animals.
On 13 March 2023, the President of Malawi, H.E. Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, declared a state of emergency in the affected districts, and a subsequent period of 14 days of national mourning. Trócaire mourns with Malawi, for the loss of life, and all those still missing or injured. Yet, together with our partner organisations, we are also determined to support where we can, and we have.
To date, Cyclone Freddy has affected 15 districts in the south of Malawi, which is over half of the country, and an area larger than Ireland.
As of Thursday 23 March, the Government of Malawi confirmed that 511 people have died and 1,332 people are injured. 533 People are still reported as missing and, sadly, more than a week after the cyclone, it is unlikely that people will be found alive. Over half a million people were displaced and are staying in 577 temporary shelters. These are mostly converted classrooms, church buildings, storage space, or makeshift tents, most with inadequate water and sanitation facilities and insufficient food.
Many of the temporary camps are still inaccessible due to the numerous roads and bridges that were destroyed, cutting off entire areas. As a result, hundreds of people have still not been reached and have gone for days without food and drinking water. Parts of the country have had no electricity for over ten days, hampering the urgent relief efforts and assistance needed for survivors. As if this is not enough, the situation is compounded by an ongoing cholera outbreak, the worst in Malawi’s history, which has claimed the lives of over 1,684 people and overstretched medical facilities, as well as a dire economic situation which has seen most food prices quadruple in the last year.
One of the very badly hit villages, was the village of Ntauchira, near Nguludi and the Catholic University of Malawi in Chiradzulu District. Very early in the morning of 14 March 2023, people woke up to a deafening sound, a roaring thunder, pouring rain, screaming and chaos. Those who were able to come outside of their home, were struck with fear and disbelief when they were surrounded by a stream of thick mud metres high and hundreds of metres wide and huge rocks that seem to have appeared out of nowhere. A mud stream so forceful it swept away everything in its path, uprooting trees, and taking entire houses, a water pump, people, and animals. Many of Ntauchira’s homes, some with entire families inside disappeared in the deep mud stream, with other people trying to cling to trees, high reeds, or anything they could find to hold on to in order to survive.