In January, Malawi experienced flooding over large swathes in the south of the country, tragically killing 176 people and forcing 200,000 from their homes. With funding from players of People's Postcode Lottery, WaterAid ensured that ten camps set up for the displaced had access to water, toilets and hygiene education. I went to see how these basic resources saved lives and prevented further tragedy.
Boyce Nyirenda and Lucy Mwase from WaterAid explained that the floods were truly devastating for the poorest people in Machinga district, where 29,000 people were affected and 79 lives were lost.
The family home in many of these villages is often no bigger than a shed. They are circular huts made with mud bricks and either corrugated iron or thatched roofs. When the floods came, masses of mud huts were destroyed literally overnight, with most people having to flee their homes with no possessions in the middle of the night. I can only imagine how distressing this must have been with nowhere to go.
Homes were completely flattened by the floods
Temporary camps sprung up. By the time I visited this summer, thankfully people had started to move back into a village. One of the larger emergency areas we went to had housed more than 1,200 people in a disused warehouse. WaterAid responded quickly by constructing temporary male and female toilets in the camp, as well as distributing soap and sterilisation tablets to provide clean water.
Conditions were far from ideal, but WaterAid's work meant there was safe and hygienic refuge. In total, the charity reached more than 75,000 people with good hygiene messages to help keep them healthy, and supported almost 2,000 people through the provision of water and sanitation facilities.
As a result, there were no reported cholera cases in any of the camps WaterAid worked in. Cholera is a serious risk in such emergency situations with lots of people living together with limited facilities, and cases were sadly reported elsewhere in Malawi.
After seeing several projects, it became even more evident how safe water, decent toilets and good hygiene can transform lives and enable a community to develop and build resilience together. I was struck by the spirit of the people and their determination to never give up on the most fundamental survival instincts.
I visited Chiguni Primary School, where WaterAid has installed new toilet blocks, with a chemical process to completely convert waste into compost. It was incredible to see the stark difference between the new toilets, and the original, dilapidated, cold toilet blocks, which were essentially holes in the ground.
WaterAid organised hygiene and handwashing education. This education for young people will hopefully become second nature and so improve sanitation and hygiene practice for generations to come. I witnessed long term effective change taking place with sustainable solutions for some of the most marginalised and poorest communities.
Sanjay visited Chiguni Primary School, where WaterAid built new toilets
I was heartened by a schoolgirl I met called Miranda who was doing very well at school and wanted to travel the world. Her community had worked with WaterAid to get safe water and sanitation facilities in her village, and it was clear to see the impact such benefits have had on her life. She made me feel optimistic about attempts to overcome poverty and recover from such a devastating disaster.
While scars from the floods remain, the communities are becoming stronger than ever before with the help of clean water and improved sanitation facilities, keeping them healthy and uniting them in a common purpose to rebuild their lives. I leave with a firm image in my mind that everyday makes me smile - a water pump. Such a simple thing really can transform lives.