U-Report Malawi: proving decisive in emergency response

By Steve M’bayeni, UNICEF Malawi

For a country that is chronically hit by dry spells and food scarcity, the sight of rainfall brings immense joy. Rain is a sign of abundance and food security.

Too much rainfall, on the other hand, is a recipe for concern. Flooding can wash away crops, destroy houses and property and be a threat to humans and livestock.

In March 2019, following Cyclone Idai – which also hit neighboring Zimbabwe and Mozambique – southern Malawi received very heavy, flooding rains.  Thousands of people in more than 14 districts were affected, with losses of life, livestock homes and crops. It was estimated that 868,900 people were affected, 677 were injured, and 69 lost their lives.

Flood damage in Marka village, Nsanje
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Juskauskas

Disseminating Lifesaving Information

In the aftermath of a disaster, time is of the essence. UNICEF in conjunction with other UN agencies and the Government of Malawi, through Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) worked quickly to provide support to those impacted. Beyond addressing immediate needs including shelter and health supports, those impacted need information on how to stay safe and healthy. This is where U-Report came in.

U-Report is a social messaging tool that empowers young people to have their voices heard and speak out on issues that matter to them. In Malawi, phones and text messaging are the second most popular means of communication, after radio.  UNICEF and partners can utilize the results from the polls U-Reporters answer to better tailor programs to support youth. Since launching in 2018, U-Report Malawi has more than 164,000 registered users, 60,000 of which come from the flood-affected districts.

During flood response, U-Report was used to disseminate lifesaving, educational  information, targeted to those who had been affected. Messages included details on how to stay safe in flooding conditions, and – most importantly – where they could get help, along with a referral number if they needed more information.  

Showing that messages were done in conjunction with the government made them prioritized and told U-Reporters they were official messages. The introductory text message read:

“Hi U-Reporter, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) is sharing the following information for people affected by floods in southern Malawi.”  

Subsequent messages advised U-Reporters to observe flood early warning signs and move to higher ground if needed:

“When you see flood early warning signs such as long rainfall and rising water levels in lakes & rivers, move to higher grounds or other safer places immediately”

“Do not walk through moving water. Six inches of moving water can make you fall. Walk where the water is not moving and use a stick to check the depth.”

Messages also addressed dangerous side effects of heavy rains and flooding – notably, cholera outbreaks. When cases of cholera were confirmed in certain districts, U-Reporters received messages to help them take action and protect their health:

“Hi U-Reporter, cholera has been confirmed in Nsanje district. People living in evacuation camps are especially at risk. Would you like to find out more?”

“Cholera is a disease that causes severe watery diarrhea and can be caught from contaminated water and food. Cholera can also be transmitted through person-to-person and make sure to take great care when treating someone with cholera.” Read one of the messages informing people about cholera.

Some of the people displaced by the floods at Nyachilenda School camp in the area of Traditional Authority Ndamera in Nsanje. ©UNICEF Malawi/2019/AMOS GUMULIRA

Needs assessment for a better response

Real-time data can be an important asset for emergency response efforts, to locate resources and supplies where they are most needed. During the recent flooding, U-Report was able to help provide this information. Information was collected from U-Reporters to assess the needs of people affected by the flood, to determine if they were living in temporary shelters or if they were still at home. Out of the 17,151 U-Reporters who responded, 10,458 said they had been affected by the floods.

Drawing on all areas of UNICEF’s work, 15 questions were developed to assess needs, including education, health, water and sanitation, nutrition, child protection and more.

“What do you need the most assistance with right now?” asked U-Reporters to highlight what they needed, so responses could be identified.

Respondents cited food as their most urgent need. When determining needs for health care, 79% said had access to health care services where they were staying. 45% noted they got services from a nearby health facility, 17% from mobile clinics and 16% from a health surveillance assistant.

51% of U-Reporters had no medical problems resulting from the floods while 19% indicated malaria, 16% had diarrhoea and an additional 16% suffered injuries during the floods.

Collectively, the data was beneficial in identifying areas that needed prioritization in the emergency response efforts.

UNICEF Malawi’s Allan Kumwenda installs toilets at Namicheni School Camp in Chikwawa District.
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/AMOS GUMULIRA

Early warning system

As heavy rains continued, DoDMA feared that the Chagwa dam could burst, threatening severe damage in the surrounding Zomba area. To serve as a vital early warning mechanism, messages were sent to the 7,011 U-Reporters in Zomba, alerting them to the ongoing situation and urging them to be on high-alert.

“DoDMA is warning that Chagwa Dam is weakening and may flood areas in and around Zomba City and Mulunguzi River.”

“Please be on high alert if you live here & plan your evacuation route.”

“Please monitor local radio for further updates from DoDMA.”

With things worsening off due to the flooding, U-Report has been a critical tool linking the affected communities and humanitarian aid organizations such as UNICEF. U-Report will continue to be used in the post-floods recovery activities to give back useful information to the government, UNICEF and other UN agencies for a proper response.

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