VIDEO: A personal account of animal disaster work in Malawi

My name is Peter Howson and I am an aquaculture consultant from the UK. Since November 2014, I have been in Malawi working with IFAW on two animal welfare projects.

I was initially invited to contribute to the sustainability of the IFAW fish farm project based in Liwonde National Park. The project was established to deter poaching fish from the Shire River, whilst also providing local people with a more sustainable livelihood choice.

For the first three months of my trip I was living in a tent in the local community. Eating, sleeping and breathing all things aquaculture, but things were about to drastically change.

In January 2015 Malawi suffered widespread flooding, which devastated large parts of the country, mainly in the low-lying southern regions.

The fish farm was hit badly, but fish are quite good swimmers so the ponds were generally OK.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the farm and companion animals, which became stranded in flood affected areas, with poor hygiene and little available food. Weaker animals were simply washed away by the floods, but those who did survive were now at risk from disease outbreaks.

Although many humanitarian NGO’s were quick to establish themselves in the flooded areas, IFAW was the first animal welfare organisation to act.

Unlike the human relief interventions data on affected animal populations was scarce, and IFAW had to start from the beginning. As I had already established myself in Malawi, IFAW asked me to carry out a rapid risk assessment on animal welfare in all flood affected areas.

Alongside two Malawian vets I attended meetings and held group discussions with many different people affected by the floods. What became evident was the poor information actually available on animals, farm or companion.

Local reports revealed many animals had been washed away, eaten by crocodiles or simply left in villages to fend for themselves.

With no support structure currently in place, IFAW decided to implement a short term vaccination programme for the surviving animals trapped in the flood affected areas. I graduated from aquaculture consultant living in a tent, to leading a team of vets on the front line of a disaster.

For me, it was a no-brainer, these animals needed support and I was happy to give it.

For two weeks myself, two vets and two IFAW representatives from South Africa, worked alongside some local community vets to support the animals in most need of help.

From my work on the rapid risk assessment, I knew the scale of the operation which would be required. But what I did not know and what I was not prepared for, was the sheer enormity of the disaster. Our target relief areas were completely cut off from civilisation. Bridges, train tracks and roads had all been washed away. Access was only possible on boats or along one of the washed away roads.

Our days would begin at 3:00 am so we could be working in the disaster zones by 6:00.

Local people would come in their masses to have their livestock vaccinated against lumpy skin disease and their companion animals vaccinated against rabies. The vets would work tirelessly in the baking heat to attend to as many animals as possible. In total, we vaccinated over 3,000 cattle and 500 dogs, which for such a small team using local support, was absolutely brilliant.

Unfortunately, our operation was only a short-term plan and there is still much more work to be done to support these animals.

Perhaps though, one of the greatest outcomes from this relief operation, was the awareness IFAW raised to support animals in need.

Throughout our work, government and non-government agencies have been taking notice of the need to support animals during times of disasters. People have slowly begun to make the link between animal welfare and human livelihoods.

Providing the necessary care for an animal will improve their survival rates, leading to a more resilient household, which will be less vulnerable to future disasters and shocks.

This was my first experience of working within a disaster zone and I have seen with my own eyes that animals will inevitably take a back seat to humans, when relief support is provided. However, the work IFAW has done in Malawi has paved the way for a much brighter future for animals in disaster struck areas.

The ministry of agriculture and livestock in Malawi, are now putting support structures in place so that immediate care can be provided to animals when the next disaster strikes.

Although we have just touched the tip of the iceberg, the vaccination programme was a huge success, not just for the suffering animals, but also for the future welfare aspects of both animals and humans who reside in these flood prone areas. 

--PH

Learn more about IFAW efforts to help animals in crisis on our theme page.

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