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Malawi: The challenge of numbers

05 Feb 2015


Jan 2015, Southern Malawi: An aerial shot of the flooding that has devastated communities in southern Malawi. The floods were caused by heavy rains which started at the end of December and continued into January. Credit: WFP/Coco Ushiyama
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A member of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team in Malawi reflects on how difficult it can be to estimate the number of people affected by a disaster.

Mona Folkesson is in Malawi as a member of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team. The team deployed in mid-January at the Government’s request in an effort to generate an accurate picture of the impact of the floods that have swept across the south of the country. Mona wrote this piece at the end of January. For up-to-date figures on the crisis, click here.

Our land cruiser enters the Malemia settlement in southern Malawi via a red-dirt road. As soon as we arrive, we are surrounded by an ocean of people, curious and friendly. Our visit is a sign of hope for these people; hope that humanitarian assistance is on the way.

The settlement is overcrowded and the number of children present is difficult to absorb. It immediately occurs to me that there is no way we are ever going to distinguish people displaced by the flooding from people already living in the village.

I am in Malawi as an UNDAC team member. We were asked here by the Government to assess the impact of the devastating floods in the south of the country. In Chikwawa district alone, 67,000 people are believed to have been affected by the floods. One of those people is Maria. She is part of the camp committee and she tells me how the flood waters came in less than 30 minutes. She and her family had to flee as their house was quickly submerged. The water is still there, two weeks after the initial flood.

Listening to stories like this helps us to understand and estimate the extent of the damage. Most houses in the district are made of clay bricks, so we can assume that Maria’s house will be destroyed if under water for such a long time. But the question is: How many people like Maria are there?

The balance between doing it quick and doing it right

Our humanitarian partners – UN agencies, NGOs and the Government – want to know how many people have been affected and where. This information will guide the relief response, help shape recovery efforts and influence donors. We have spent days assessing the situation in the three worst-hit districts. We have met district commissioners, interviewed camp committees at a number of IDP settlements, and observed the extent of damage from land and helicopter.

Verifying numbers is challenging in any disaster, but even more so in a flood because the geographical scope is usually large, and displacement sites are scattered far and wide, often in inaccessible areas.

One way of overcoming this is through the use of satellite imagery. These images can tell us the extent of the flooding and, combined with census data, help us estimate how many people might be affected. But this method has limitations. At best, it only provides an estimate – a “guesstimate” really. Its advantage is that it is quick and cost effective – we only have limited resources and, as is the case at the beginning of any disaster, there isn’t time to undertake a full verification and registration process.

The arbitrary line between flood affected and not

The act of delivering assistance also adds a new level of complexity to this task. As the District Commissioner of Chikwawa, Alex Mdogo, explained: “When the trucks came, the numbers [of people] went up. Aid distributions attract.”

This is especially true in a country where 60 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1.25 per day. So the difference between those affected by the floods and those who weren’t is not so large. Even those spared by the floods have few assets and poor access to food. Indeed, many people here were already relying on food assistance from the Government and aid agencies before the floods arrived.

When people realize that only those registered as flood affected will receive a bag of maize flour from the food truck, then the incentive to be counted increases. What role should humanitarian actors play when the line between those who need humanitarian assistance is so thin that it almost can’t be distinguished?

The importance of good numbers

Good, credible numbers are important. We need correct numbers to be able to target people in greatest need. Organizations need them to write project proposals to donors, and donors need them to decide how they should allocate their humanitarian funds.

But are we sometimes a bit too preoccupied with the numbers that we end up inadvertently delaying the response? Put another way, how much time should we spend making sure that Maria receives help, but not her neighbour who wasn’t affected by the flood, yet who still lives in deep poverty?

Our job is to provide information based on what we have observed. Our humanitarian partners then have to decide if they want to wait for verified numbers, or if they are willing to move forward with what’s at hand and potentially “risk” including those who might not be the target group.

As I finish writing this story at the end of January, the Government now estimates that 72,800 people in Chikwawa need assistance. That’s almost 6,000 more people than when I arrived in mid-January. In comparison, the assistance provided so far does not even cover 5 per cent of those people. Given this gap, how important are the precise numbers exactly?