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Jan 16, 2015 5:21 PM

Floods kill at least 176, displace 200,000 in Malawi

The Associated Press

BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) Flooding in Malawi has killed more than 176 people, displaced at least 200,000 others, left homes and schools submerged in water and roads washed away by the deluge in the southern African country, the vice president said Friday.

Downriver in neighboring Mozambique, floodwaters have left at least 38 dead, according to Mozambican news agency AIM, displaced tens of thousands and damaged the main road linking the north and south of the country.

While the Mozambican government's flood plan, announced last year, may have lessened the damage, Malawi was caught off guard.

Dozens of people are missing in Malawi, with at least 153 unaccounted for in the worst affected southern parts of the country, Vice President Saulos Chilima said.

"It's a very bad situation," he said, speaking at a press conference in Malawi's commercial capital Blantyre.

A joint operation between the police and the army was underway to rescue hundreds who were trapped in their villages by flood waters caused by weeks of heavy rain, Chilima said. A bright spot of their work so far: Rescue workers had found a woman who had given birth while trapped by floodwaters. The mother and newborn were healthy, Chilima said.

"I flew over some parts of the Lower Shire but we could not find anywhere to land," he said of the south. "It's a big challenge we have before us." Thousands of homes had been destroyed, hundreds of hectares of crops submerged and livestock had been washed away, Chilima said.

"We have lost everything," said Kalenga, a man who took shelter in a tent camp set up by the Malawi Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, and Doctors Without Borders. He gave only his first name.

Tents have been set up for those left homeless, and many have found refuge with friends and neighbors whose homes remained habitable, Doctors Without Borders said in a statement. The international medical organization said it was concerned that displaced people were also vulnerable to water-borne disease due unsanitary conditions.

"Most of Nsanje and East Bank are submerged under two to three meters of water, which has transformed these vast plains into a giant lake engulfing houses and bridges," said Amaury Gregoire, Doctors Without Borders' mission head in Malawi's south.

The United Nations World Food Program said it plans to airlift more than 100 metric tons of food to the southern African to feed at least 77,000, but added in a statement that accessing Malawi's southern districts has been "extremely difficult."

In Chikwawa, 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) from Blantyre, traditional leaders sent dugout canoes to rescue stranded villagers, some finding shelter in trees.

"Some tree branches snapped, tossing people back into the water," said Issa Bande, whose village was flooded when Malawi's largest river, the Shire River, burst its banks.

In Mozambique, the Licungo river burst its banks and has reached its highest levels since 1971, killing at least seven people as they tried to cross its bridge, while a ferry sank on the river, killing eight people, according to Mozambican news agency, AIM.

The Zambezia province is the worst hit, where at least 23 people have died and thousands left homeless, according to AIM.

Mozambique's government announced last year that the country had set aside up to $32 million of the national budget to cover disaster response efforts. Relief workers there have been using boats to access areas where roads have been damaged.

Mozambique is frequently hit by floods. In 2000 the country experienced its worst flood, in which more than 800 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were made homeless when waters severely submerged whole towns.

Malawi's government said it is working on a disaster preparedness strategy.


Chutel reported from Johannesburg.


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