Malawi grapples with aftermath of worst quakes in 50 years

NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Thousands of Malawians in the north of the country have been told to stay away from their homes after a string of rare earthquakes hit the remote region.

At least 30 earthquakes, the largest measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale, have hit the northern district of Karonga since the start of December, killing four people, injuring at least 180 and affecting 145,000 others.

“These are the worst earthquakes since 1966 when we had the last earthquake measuring 6.2 in the same areas, but the destruction then was less,” said James Chiusiwa, the deputy coordinator of Malawi’s Disaster Management Department.

As the rainy season begins in northern Malawi, one of the world’s least developed countries, there is concern that people will be forced to return to homes, many of which were damaged in the quakes and are unstable.

“The Malawian government and donors are responding to the 24,000 households affected with tents and survival kits until we are sure that we shall not have any more earthquakes,” said Chiusiwa in a telephone interview from the Malawian capital Blantyre.

Aid agencies on Malawi’s Disaster Risk Reduction Programme cluster are trying to dissuade people from returning to their homes. Most houses in Karonga are made of mud and wattle and have been weakened by the quakes.

“The fact that the earthquakes keep repeating themselves creates so much uncertainty and the least we can do is to tell people to keep away from their houses for now” said Richard Dictus, UNDP’s country coordinator who chairs cluster.

‘EARTHQUAKE SWARM’

Malawi and its remote, uranium-rich Karonga district are in the earthquake-prone Great African Rift Valley, a 5000-kilometre-long fault line that stretches from the Red Sea to southern Africa.

Three teams from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Columbia University and local experts are probing the worrying trend of earthquakes.

“These earthquakes are very rare because, unlike the 1966 earthquake and the 1989 Salima earthquake, they are very many in a very short period of time,” said Chiusiwa.

The last tremors were experienced more then two weeks ago but the patter of quakes points to an “earthquake swarm” – a cluster of quakes that hit in close succession and that usually precedes a volcanic eruption, according to the USGS website.

The U.N. warned that though the quakes will keep many from their homes, it is important that food cultivation in the lush and fertile country continues in order to avoid food shortages.

More than half of Malawi’s 14 million people live below the poverty line and 84 percent of its population live in rural areas. The land-locked country is ranked 160 out of 182 countries in the 2009 Human Development Index.

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