Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship Program :: Center for Science and Technology Policy Research

About the internship program Application information Summer Placements Notes from the field


notes from the field

These field notes are personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre

Kanmani Venkateswaran

Lusaka, Zambia
May 11 – August 11

July 29, 2013

Mudenda explaining the timeline of the flood responseThe Zambian Red Cross (ZRC) conducted a flood response operation in Mumbwa in March this year using the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF). This month, the ZRC was visited by Melanie, a disaster management delegate from the IFRC, Viggo, a representative from the British Red Cross, and Stanley, the Disaster Management Coordinator for the Southern African Zone, to conduct a review of the flood response and use of DREF funds. They were kind enough to let me take part in their meetings with the different stakeholders – this included meetings with the government’s Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU), the Mumbwa District Commissioner’s office, World Vision (an NGO that partnered with the ZRC for the operation), Red Cross volunteers, and beneficiaries. They concluded their visit with a ‘Lessons Learned’ workshop which included ZRC staff and the volunteers that were involved in the operations.

In January 2013, rains began in Mumbwa, located in the central province of Zambia, about one hour away from Lusaka. By the beginning of February, rains became increasingly heavy and, according to local village headmen, did not stop for two weeks straight. The rains raised the water table so much that water started to come out of the ground. By around mid-February, water around homes was about 40 cm high and water in the fields was 60 to 70 cm high. Fields of maize and cotton had washed away and houses were collapsing. Bridges and roads were not passable.

The floods were brought to the Zambian Red Cross’ (ZRC) attention on February 9 through online alerts from the Lusaka Times. While the ZRC wanted to respond to the floods, they did not have the funds to conduct a full relief operation. They decided to apply for funds from the Disaster Emergency Relief Fund (DREF).

The DREF is a pot of money that all Red Cross National Societies are allowed to apply for to facilitate rapid response to disasters or emergencies such as floods, earthquakes and election violence. While DREF can be used in anticipation of disasters occurring, there needs to be sufficient evidence that the disaster will occur. In addition, it is short-term funding meaning that it caters to immediate needs and cannot be used to improve long-term disaster response capacity of a National Society or reduce community vulnerability to future disasters.

DREF reviewers, ZRC staff, and volunteers at the end of the workshopBefore the ZRC could apply for DREF a rapid assessment was conducted to evaluate the extent of the disaster. It was determined from the assessment that 1600 families were affected by the floods, but that 300 families were the most in need of emergency relief. Accordingly, the first draft of the DREF application was submitted to the IFRC’s Southern African Zone office on February 14. This application largely focused on the procurement of food (maize meal, cooking oil, and dry beans) and non-food (mosquito nets, blankets, soap, chlorine and jerry cans) items. Tents, for shelter, were procured by the government.

The DREF application needed to be resubmitted a few times and was finally approved on February 26.  Funds were transferred and procurement of the food and non-food items began. This process took some time because the suppliers insisted that payments were made before the items were given. Between March 9 and March 12, volunteers from Mumbwa were trained in basic disaster and relief management, hygiene promotion and branch development. Typically, these trainings should occur over a 2 week period, however the pressing need to distribute relief meant that the training was cut short from 14 days to 4 days.

Door-to-door hygiene promotion was carried out by the volunteers from March 14 onwards, teaching villagers how to wash their hands properly, cough and sneeze in ways that minimize the transfer of illnesses, use pit latrines, and so on. This was done to prevent the outbreak and transmission of water-borne diseases. Relief was finally prepositioned and distributed on March 22. Volunteers had held community meetings prior to distribution to inform community members how beneficiary selection was carried out and what relief beneficiaries would be receiving.

Despite the challenges faced by the ZRC with the DREF application, the suppliers, and time, the DREF operation was a success. Relief distribution was smooth and the beneficiaries received the items they were told they would receive. In addition, the relief that was provided consisted of the items that individuals and families required to survive in the immediate future. The door-to-door hygiene promotion undertaken by the volunteers was especially successful given that there were no outbreaks of water borne diseases in the aftermath of the floods. Finally, strong partnerships were formed between the Red Cross, World Vision,  the DMMU and the District Commissioner’s office to ensure efficient and effective coordination of flood response.

Although  the DREF operation was a success, Mumbwa’s situation still does not look good. The destruction of fields has resulted in widespread hunger and exacerbated poverty. Many families are still living in the tents and have not been able to rebuild their homes or even begin doing so due to their lack of income. The disadvantage of DREF is that it is meant for short-term response. While it can help with immediate consequences of floods, it cannot help with the long-term problems that they cause.

What is clear from this operation is the need for early warning systems. While the relief distribution was successful, it still took over a month after the floods began for relief to be distributed to the beneficiaries. In addition, the volunteers’ trainings were shortened from 14 to 4 days; during the Lessons Learned workshop, the majority of the volunteers expressed their interest in receiving the full training and receiving additional training on First Aid to maximize their effectiveness in  future situations.

Early warning systems can help ensure that the Red Cross is the first responder to disasters, small or large. If a forecast was distributed prior to a disaster, stakeholders can take actions that minimize both short-term and long-term damages and losses. For example, a rapid assessment can be carried out before the flood occurs, allowing the Red Cross to mobilize funds and preposition relief stocks in advance. Volunteers can also be more fully trained during this time in disaster and relief management, hygiene promotion, branch development, and First Aid.

Community members can take early actions to protect their homes and fields provided they receive early warnings. While flood forecasts were disseminated over TV, the majority of community members did not receive the forecasts because they do not have access to TV. In addition, the forecasts were also not specific to Mumbwa; rather, they spoke about heavier than normal rains in the Central Province. Of those who did receive forecasts over TV, many were unable to fully understand them because the forecasts were in English. The forecasts also could not be fully understood because the people of Mumbwa do not experience floods often – there is a lack of local knowledge on how heavy rains translate into floods. The early warnings provided were therefore packaged poorly and insufficient.

Despite the poor dissemination of forecasts, some community members did undertake actions to protect their mud and thatched houses once they saw that the rains were getting heavy. A Red Cross volunteer told us about how some community members stacked wooden poles against the inner walls to prevent the mud from collapsing, raised the ground of the house using gravel, surrounded their houses with sandbags to block flood waters from entering their homes, and/or dug drainages around their houses. According to the volunteer, houses that were reinforced in these ways were the houses that did not collapse. Early warning systems will enable more community members to undertake such actions prior to future flood situations.

Early warning systems are a good step towards ensuring that communities and stakeholders such as the ZRC are more resilient to climate change and prepared to respond to disasters. It is essential that the early warnings disseminated through these systems are packaged in a way that can be accessed and understood.

Participating in the DREF review was a really positive experience for me. It provided me with a very grounded justification for why I am doing the work that I am doing with the Red Cross. Hereon, I’ll mostly be report-writing. I was supposed to attend the National Disaster Response Training in Sesheke this week, but a bout of food poisoning (thanks, vegetable shawarma) prevented me from being able to go. I now have a little over 2 weeks left in Zambia. My parents and sister are heading to Zambia to visit me and I will be travelling with them to South Luangwa National Park over my last week here to see lions, giraffes, zebra, hippos, antelopes, and hopefully cheetahs!

First photo: Mudenda explaining the timeline of the flood response

Second photo: DREF reviewers, ZRC staff, and volunteers at the end of the workshop