September 26, 2023

Jakina Lameki, who resides in the town of Bangula in Malawi’s southernmost district of Nsanje, has personally witnessed the disastrous effects of climate change on her nation for the past two years. Following Cyclone Ana’s destruction of Lameki’s maize, millet, bean, and sweet potato harvests the previous year, Tropical Storm Gombe completely wiped all her acreage.

Lameki relied on humanitarian food aid for the most of the year, but after a promising beginning to the growing season in November, she was optimistic that she would be able to feed herself and her family. Lameki, however, will have to deal with food insecurity for yet another year since she is one of the 2.3 million people whose cattle and crops were destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which hit Malawi in March and left more than 650,000 people homeless. “This growing season got off to a good start. Our crops were quite promising, but everything washed away. We have to start again from scratch now,” she laments.

Over the previous 50 years, Malawi has had more than 19 floods, seven droughts, and the biggest floods in 50 years destroyed the country in 2015. The staggering cost of food imports due to rising fuel prices, the increased cost of fertiliser due to the conflict in Ukraine, and general inflationary pressures have all significantly worsened the situation, which affects more than 5.4 million people in Malawi. Following hurricanes Ana and Gombe, Malawi has also seen a catastrophic cholera outbreak. Over 58,700 total cases of cholera have been documented in the nation as of March 2022, with 1,760 fatalities and a case fatality rate of 2.99 percent.

Malawi is likely to be hit even harder by climate change in the upcoming years due to an increase in extreme weather events, pervasive poverty, quick population growth, significant deforestation, and environmental degradation (caused in part by the high demand for charcoal and firewood).

Experts are urging the government to improve its plans for preparing for disasters and adapting to climate change, especially in agriculture, which is the backbone of the nation’s economic activity.

Steve Makungwa, a senior lecturer and deputy dean of the college of natural resources at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Rural Resources, asserts that “we need to build resilience in our society and the environment.” He uses the government’s efforts to address the problem of climate change by using the example of farmers in climate-vulnerable areas being educated in subsistence irrigation farming and rainwater gathering, but he claims more has to be done.

Investing in climate-smart agriculture

Over 80% of Malawi’s 19 million people work in smallholder agriculture, which contributes more than a quarter of the country’s GDP. Although Malawi is one of the lowest polluters in Southern Africa, the agriculture sector accounts for 52% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. The government and its foreign partners have been developing numerous climate adaptation plans in the agriculture sector, though, because the nation is so susceptible to outside shocks.

The leading National Resilience Strategy (NRS) is one such. A multi-stakeholder, sector-wide strategy was introduced in 2018 in an effort to break the cycle of persistent food insecurity in Malawi. All institutions involved in agriculture are working together in technical working groups to identify long-term solutions. A key part of the government’s intentions is the promotion of climate-smart agriculture, a farming method that aims to combat both food poverty and climate change by assisting in the restoration of agro-ecosystems and increasing production while lowering emissions.

According to Gertrude Kambauwa, head of the Department of Land Resources Conservation at the Ministry of Agriculture, “farmers need to have the right knowledge about environmental degradation and interventions that can reverse its effects.”

According to her, the government has implemented a number of programs nationwide, “including tree planting, the production of compost and animal manure, as well as the harvesting of rainwater – all of which are encompassed in on-farm farmer trainings.”

However, the World Bank reports that Malawi has encountered a number of barriers to the widespread adoption of climate-smart agriculture. These barriers include a lack of relevant expertise, limited access to financial resources, and unreliable land tenure, all of which disproportionately affect smallholders.

In order to support vulnerable populations, more needs to be done, according to Makungwa, to scale up the use of climate-smart agriculture. The expansion of climate-smart technologies like conservation agriculture, the diversification and use of improved crop varieties, soil and water management, the promotion of irrigation farming, agroforestry, and post-harvest management are being hampered by a number of factors, according to Makungwa, including financing, individual and institutional capacities, and ineffective regulatory frameworks.

More money required

While experts agree that one of the key solutions to Malawi’s climate challenge is climate adaptation, where action is taken to foresee and adapt to the current and projected impacts of climate change, Makungwa claims that not enough is currently being done by the state to stop and undo the damage that has been done to the environment.

“Look at our agricultural systems, which continue to employ substandard farming methods. Look at the destruction and deterioration of our woods and arable areas throughout the nation, and then consider the patterns of human habitation, particularly in towns and cities, adds Makungwa.

The Forestry Act Amendment Bill of 2019 (which offers a number of increased protections to Malawi’s forests, such as the improved regulation of charcoal) and the 2023 Disaster Risk Management Bill, both of which were passed in April, are two examples Kambauwa cites as evidence of the government’s commitment to creating climate-resilient communities. However, Kambauwa disputes that the government is not doing enough to address the issues that are driving climate change.

Famous Malawian agricultural commentator Tamani Nkhono Mvula contends that while individuals share some of the burden of creating climate-resilient communities, significant social change can only occur if the government offers supportive policies, legislation, and funding.

Malawi was one of the nations spearheading the push for the creation of a loss and damages fund, a mechanism to pay vulnerable countries for “loss and damage” from climate-induced disasters, during COP27 in Egypt last year.

Although a historic agreement was achieved, no plans have yet been made on who would finance the fund or which nations will be eligible for its financing. And in Malawi, the development of climate-smart agricultural practices and climate-resilient infrastructure would depend heavily on adaptation financing from the international community.

Local NGOs are working hard to educate people about how to farm more sustainably and how to protect themselves from the worst effects of climate catastrophes. In a Zoom interview, Moses Chibwana, the director of the Malawian NGO Development Aid from People to People (DAPP), stated:

We understand the predicament Malawians are in, he adds, and we’re working with the government to provide local populations with the knowledge they need to make the best environmental choices. “We can move people away from disaster-prone areas, but climate change events like droughts, floods, and diseases brought on by the environment will persist.” The climate emergency will require all hands on deck, despite the fact that climate-smart agriculture is an important tool: “There is no one answer to the climate situation facing Malawi,” adds Chibwana.

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