Reducing the Impact of Natural Disasters in Malawi: Empowering Citizens and Taking Charge

January 29, 2014


  • Malawi’s disaster risk management project, supported by the World Bank, helps the government reduce the impact of natural disasters on its citizens
  • Disaster forecasting and risk modeling provide the government with tools to better able predict and prepare for catastrophic events
  • Training in flood and drought forecasting models not only leads to better preparedness, but also climate-smart practices

LILONGWE, January 29, 2014 – Aiming to avert large-scale flood and drought damage in Malawi, the government is implementing disaster forecasting and risk modeling measures that are reducing risks and creating safer environments for communities.

These measures have led to advanced disaster preparedness by the country’s citizens, who are better able to predict catastrophic events and, therefore, more effectively prepare for them. Such preparedness has been achieved through the Malawi Disaster Risk Management project led by the World Bank’s Africa Disaster Risk Management Group, with financing from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

"Following the 2009 Karonga earthquake disaster and the awareness it raised, integration of disaster risk management in Malawi's overall development strategies has remained a key element in the country's improving capacity to deal with sudden onset as well as long-term disasters," said Kundhavi Kadiresan, World Bank Malawi country director. 

The livelihood of a typical rural Malawi household can be negatively impacted by the sudden onset of extreme weather and climatological events during which, the poorest and most vulnerable communities often suffer the most. As most households are heavily dependent on the steady income amassed from rain-fed agriculture, just one disaster can cause an entire loss of a crop and subsequently, their income.

This is most evident from the continuous flooding in the Shire River Basin in the southern part of Malawi which impacts thousands of households each year and keeps poorer families in a constant state of disaster recovery. The government decided to take action in order to better protect residents in the Valley.

A Malawi Economic Vulnerability and Disaster Risk Assessment was conducted to better understand the socio-economic effects of disasters. The analytical study indicated that annual flood damage in the Shire River Basin resulted in an average loss of 0.7% of GDP ($9 million) per year. Elsewhere in the country, drought caused an average economic loss of 1% annually ($13 million).

The results of study inspired a government-led Shire River Basin Management Program which began to implement more comprehensive flood prevention measures such as the mapping of flood zones, an early warning system and flood forecasting. The research was then combined with technology-focused efforts, such as a flood risk modeling framework using geospatial information and new software services to better take advantage of the latest flood prevention tools.

Using this new empirical analysis on flooding in the lower Shire Valley, the government profiled the disasters and supplied mitigation measures to the local population through a series of training sessions.

“Disasters are everybody’s responsibility because it was evident during the training that all sectors of the economies are greatly impacted by them,” said Dyce Nkhoma, Chief Relief and Rehabilitation Officer from the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DODMA).

Once awareness was raised, the groundwork for comprehensive action was put in place along with the new measures and a notable shift occurred from a reactive emergency response structure to disaster management capacity building.  This resulted in the implementation of key risk reduction activities such as data preparedness for known disasters using the open data for resilience initiative (DRI), which has led to the development of Malawi Spatial Data Platform (MASDAP) a platform for sharing all spatial data in the country[1]. Other activities include community mapping to enhance baseline information and contingency planning, the improvement of weather, climate and hydrological services and general disaster risk management awareness.

These activities are now being implemented to better inform the population of potential disaster risks and empower citizens to take preventative action. Additionally, in order to curb the negative effects of changing weather patterns on some of the country’s major crops, such as maize and cotton, climate-smart agriculture initiatives have also been proposed. This has led to additional training sessions which have been implemented on climate-smart agriculture and conservation agriculture, highlighting how disaster risk management is intrinsically linked to the effects of climate change.  

 “The capacity building supported by The World Bank in climate-smart agriculture and conservation agriculture has greatly impacted the momentum of the country to take these initiatives seriously and this has shown a strong linkage of Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation,” said Dr. Patson Cleopus Nalivata, a Lecturer in soil science at Bunda College, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR).

Malawi’s disaster risk management efforts align with the country’s development strategy of creating a safer environment for all of its citizens. These combined efforts also help reduce the strain on the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by reducing the economic impact and loss of livelihoods which occur following a disaster. Furthermore, key sector initiatives within social protection and water resources have already been defined, allowing government officials to use the results of the combined disaster risk analysis and use of new disaster risk management measures to continue to make further improvements to forecasting and risk modeling. This will include improved safety nets for the most vulnerable populations, increased irrigation within the agricultural sector and improvements in early warning for floods and drought.

“The Malawi DRM program is a good example how we try to systematically engage with African countries to strengthen long term disaster and climate resilience. It first provided the analytical basis to better understand and quantify the risks, and then integrates risk reduction with climate-smart approaches which are used to build the needed framework that, in the end, truly improves the safety of all citizens,” notes Christoph Pusch, Africa Disaster Risk Management Practice Group Leader.