Residents of Mwalija village received a rude awakening when their homes were rattled and flooded by Cyclone Idai in March.

"It was a scary situation and we rushed to the site where there is a solar panel," said Hannah Longeya, pointing at the fence surrounding the solar power system on higher ground.

"The water reached neck height," she said, adding that some people were forced to hang onto tree branches.

The small solar plant, installed by international development charity Practical Action with European Union funding in 2016, sits on a raised area close to the Shire River, a major source of flooding in this part of southern Malawi.

But the UK-based aid agency said the solar panels survived the powerful cyclone due to forward planning, which it hopes will pay off as climate change brings more extreme weather.

The metal stands holding the solar panels are 15 cm (6 inches) thick and sunk deep into the soil, as well as reinforced with concrete, so they were able to withstand Idai's high winds and heavy rain.

Now with the solar installation having protected villagers in Chikwawa district from the storm's immediate danger, they are hoping it can help them get their lives back on track faster.

The solar micro-grid was supplying power to an irrigation scheme, a school, a clinic and a business development centre.

Villagers have now relocated almost 3 km (1.86 miles) from their damaged homes, where they hope they will be safer from future extreme weather. But they want to come back to their land and start farming again.

Local authorities are also considering extending the power lines from the solar micro-grid to serve the villagers' new homes.

Practical Action's southern Africa director, Kudzai Marovanidze, said Cyclone Idai was a "stark and deadly reminder" of the impact of climate change on the world's poorest people.

The storm made landfall in mid-March near Beira City in Mozambique and then barreled westwards over eastern Zimbabwe, also causing massive floods in Malawi.

It killed more than 1,000 people in the three countries and left nearly 3 million in need of humanitarian aid.

A massive relief operation, led by U.N. agencies and international humanitarian groups, has assisted about 732,000 survivors in Malawi with emergency food, as well as providing them with clean water, sanitation and other essentials.

Marovanidze said such weather hazards were becoming more frequent and intense.

"We must ensure that climate resilience is at the centre of all future development work so that people have the skills, tools and knowledge to cope with, and recover from, disasters," he said in emailed comments.

"If the aid community, along with national governments and international institutions like the U.N. and the World Bank don't approach things differently, millions of dollars of investment will continue to be lost," he added.

A number of Practical Action's aid projects were affected by the cyclone, including solar-powered irrigation and micro-grids in Zimbabwe and Malawi - but 85 percent survived, it said.