Holding back the flood: Using savings groups to relocate from risk in Malawi

by 23rd Mar 2020
People queuing to receive water and hygiene items from CARE at a camp for flood-displaced people in Nsanje, Malawi People queuing to receive water and hygiene items from CARE at a camp for flood-displaced people in Nsanje, Malawi

As the climate crisis makes natural disasters a daily reality for people around the world, communities and humanitarian organisations are looking for ways to mitigate risks and build resilience. In 2019, in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai – which ravaged the coast of southern Africa – CARE’s Emergency Shelter Advisor, Crystal Whitaker, travelled to Malawi to support recovery and learn how communities were using simple savings groups to break the devastating cycle where repeat floods would wipe out homes and livelihoods, forcing families to start over again and again. Below she shares seven lessons for practitioners looking to build longer-term risk mitigation measures into shorter emergency or preparedness programmes.

The floods of 2015

Never before had the villages around Muona, at the very southern tip of Malawi, experienced such devastation from flooding: crops were washed away, livestock drowned, houses collapsed – and many lost loved ones. Whole communities fled the area, finding refuge in the camps and collective centres that sprang up on higher ground and in public buildings and schools.

One village’s very brave decision

The cramped conditions in these temporary shelters, with a lack of basic facilities and privacy, were almost as traumatic as the flooding itself. While messaging about the need to relocate out of flood-risk areas was widely disseminated in the wake of the floods, there was little practical support to do so. It was during this period that one village from Nsanje District decided not to return to their lands. Having lived in the same locations for generations, abandoning their lands was not a decision taken lightly but they couldn’t face the pain of losing everything and ever having to live in the camps again.

Saving up to relocate

Families in the village had been operating Village Savings & Loans Associations (VSLA) for a number of years before the 2015 flood. CARE had been implementing a VSLA project as part of the UBALE programme funded by USAID Office of Food for Peace. VSLA had allowed communities to bolster resources of crops and animals, improve their houses and send their children to school. Following the 2015 flood, during conversations in the camp weighing their options, one idea that kept recurring was to save up enough money through the VSLA in order to buy land away from the danger areas. The village did not do this collectively. Families with more resources started the process. Then, sharing advice and experiences with their neighbours, more families were encouraged to start saving to make the move. By the time of CARE Emergency Shelter Advisor, Crystal Whitaker’s visit in late 2019, around 50 households had fully relocated. A small number of families have still to move out of the flood plain as they work to save up enough.

From relocating to rebuilding

After saving enough to relocate, the main focus was on building a new house. At first, these were traditional, adobe mud-brick structures, rapidly erected to provide a basic level of shelter. Some time later, a larger and more modern shelter would be constructed (still in mud brick). By the time of Crystal’s visit in early November 2019, many of the families were laying the foundations of ‘burnt brick’ houses (fired brick is more durable than adobe construction). This incremental process of self-recovery remains visible today in the clusters of houses across the flat and sparsely populated land. Although, it must be noted, that most still lack the resources to reconstruct their homes more safely to prevent future disasters – despite the area experiencing regular earthquakes.

Hidden costs and collective power

In hindsight, many say that they had not fully considered – or budgeted for – what it meant to completely relocate. The families had to acquaint themselves with a new host village and leadership structure from whom they bought land, and they missed their historic social and support networks. They had forgotten about building kitchens and latrines, and the cost of transporting bricks from their collapsed houses to the new location some distance away. They had to contribute to the drilling of new boreholes and the establishment of other infrastructure and amenities that were not yet in place, including schools. However, the village is collectively purchasing household items and kitchenware, which has allowed them to negotiate successfully for lower prices with local vendors.

The cyclone of 2019 and breaking the cycle

Despite the floods that swept through Malawi in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai in March 2019 being worse than in 2015, this community remained largely unaffected while areas around them were inundated. The VSLA helped break the devastating cycle where floods would wipe out crops and force families to start over again with even fewer resources. It meant that they did not have to rely on fragile crop cycles in order to keep themselves safe, and did not have to relive the trauma of losing everything year after year. It has even inspired other families from outside their village to adopt the same process and join them in the new location.

What can we learn from this?

1. VSLA can support disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies

Existing VSLAs may support DRR strategies, such as relocation to safer areas, and both can be mutually reinforcing when it comes to breaking the cycle of poverty.

2. The power of collective action

While it was not an organised group initiative at first, the peer-to-peer exchange and sharing of experiences was crucial to inspiring and making it easier for others to relocate. Other collective actions – such as purchasing household items or commissioning the drilling of boreholes – may also be relevant for supporting early and preparatory activities such as transporting bricks, assets and materials between locations.

3. Government and local governance structures should support DRR messaging

Government will, communication and initiatives – with the support of local leadership and community structures – are important to reinforce DRR messaging and can be a catalyst for action. The village heads and community committees played a key role in the village’s decision-making processes while they were living in the camps in 2015.

4. The need for robust risk analysis

Following the 2015 floods, some families only moved a little upland and were forced to relocate a second time in 2019. It is important that a comprehensive technical understanding of flooding and risk areas underpins the advice provided to communities, alongside other risk factors (including strong winds and tremors/earthquakes). It should also take into consideration the likely increased frequency and severity of hazards.

5. Recovery is not a linear process

Relocation, house building and establishing a functioning community are ongoing and parallel processes. Some key infrastructure needs to be incorporated in the early planning and budgeting process to reduce some of the more difficult challenges faced – but can be underway in parallel.

6. Leave no one behind

Some more vulnerable households will struggle to achieve their goals as easily as others. A tailored approach for multi-faceted support may be necessary alongside a nuanced and community-led understanding of vulnerability and need.

7. Gender in emergencies

Women are generally not included on land documents, which are generally signed by the original landowner, the local leader/village headman, and the husband. Customary practice is that widows will not be evicted. Housing, land and property rights, tenure, and gender should be closely looked at in this context.

This blog was co-authored by Crystal Whitaker and Rebecca Wilton. It is based on insights documented by CARE’s former Emergency Shelter Advisor, Crystal Whitaker, during two focus group discussions and short transect walks around one of the places of origin and the new village settlement location. The blog was edited by Rebecca Wilton, Knowledge Management & Communications Officer for CARE International UK.

For more information, contact Emergency Shelter Team Leader, Step Haiselden: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Crystal Whitaker

I joined CARE’s Humanitarian Technical Team as Emergency Shelter Advisor in May 2018, after over eight years on deployment in the Balkans, Middle East and West Africa. I initially trained in architecture in the UK before moving to Kosovo where I was involved in urban, rural and municipal spatial planning, durable solutions, return and reintegration processes, and the protection of cultural heritage, with a number of organisations such as the Danish Refugee Council, UNDP, the Council of Europe and the International Civilian Office. I have since transitioned into early recovery, humanitarian and emergency fields, broadening technical experience as a first-line responder in the management and coordination of multi-sectorial RRM, Food Security, Shelter/NFI and WASH activities, most recently in northern and central Iraq and in northeast Nigeria. A central interest is in where and how immediate humanitarian relief activities can contribute incrementally to longer term, more durable, integrated and sustainable solutions for both displaced, hosting and affected populations, with a focus on the nature of communication and engagement between local authorities, communities and individuals to enable ownership and agency to positive effect. For this I have tried to gain practical, ‘hands on’ experience in the field to better understand the varying contexts and conditions encountered over time by communities in crisis.

One good thing I’ve read

A series of texts I read during the early days of moving from architecture to the development world helped in my understanding of active conflicts and in defining the possibilities for reconciliation or peaceful tolerance (or not) in the lengthy and indeterminate period after a conflict, particularly when there is an ethnic dimension to the violence: Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict by Andrew Herscher, Monument and Crime: The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Kosovo by Andrew Herscher and András Riedlmayer, and Prishtina is Everywhere - Turbo-Urbanism: the Aftermath of a Crisis edited by Kai Vöckler.