Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Farming Crisis: Filling An Empty Plate, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

MALAWI: Climate Change Is Changing Farming Methods

Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Mar 6 2010 (IPS) - As they slept soundly on the night of Feb. 28, a family of four was killed when their house collapsed over their heads in Malawi’s southern district of Chikhwawa.

Christopher Ganizani, 27, his wife Grace, 29, and their children Rymon, six, and Christian, who was only nine months old, were buried alive under the rubble of their house, according to Chikhwawa police spokesman Sunday Ngulube.

“The house, made of unbaked mud bricks, buckled under the intensity of the heavy rains that have been falling in the area recently,” he explained.

Heavy and stormy rains started hitting the area last month. They followed a drought the district experienced since October, a time of the year when the country usually receives rain. Chikhwawa is one of the districts in the country facing harsh effects of climate change, according to a 2010 Government of Malawi report to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

Malawi has experienced extreme weather events, the report states, ranging from droughts in the 1991/92 growing season to floods in the 1996/97 season and flash floods in 2000/01. Such extreme weather events “clearly show that there are large temporal and spatial variables in the occurrence of climate-related disasters and calamities”, according to the authors of the report.

This has caused irreversible damages to crop and livestock production. In Chikhwawa and Nsanje districts, farmers have been forced to plant more than twice because crops were destroyed, while others did not plant at all by mid-February, according to the report.

Ganizo Nyandoro, 39, a subsistence farmer from Chikhwawa, says she has stopped growing maize, the country’s staple food. “With the unpredictable weather patterns, I have had to start growing drought-resistant crops and early maturing crops because the rains the country is getting at the moment are no longer conducive to growing maize,” she told IPS.

Nyandoro says she now grows cassava, sweet potatoes, cotton and rears goats. “For the past eight years, as far as I can remember, my area has been affected by droughts and floods. Most people in my community are moving away from growing maize,” she added, explaining that her community still buys maize after selling the produce from their farming activities. “We are so used to eating the staple food that we have to buy it.”

Malawi’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture, with up to 85 percent of the country’s 13.1 million citizens relying on the land for their livelihoods. Like in other southern African countries, the harvest of staple crop maize has dropped severely. In Malawi, president Bingu wa Mutharika, who is also the country’s minister of agriculture, said he expects a 30 percent reduction this year, down from last year’s maize production of 3.7 million metric tonnes.

Throughout the country, communities are highly vulnerable to different climate risks, including flooding, shorter rains, dry spells, late rains, drought, strong winds and hail storms, according to a September 2009 study conducted by Bunda College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi.

“Floods and drought were mentioned by all vulnerable communities as being the most climate change risks affecting their adaptation efforts,” noted Dr. David Mkwambisi, one of the researchers.

He says, as a result, crops die before maturity, crop are damaged by floods and there is soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, siltation of fields, shortage of water, loss of land and reduction in yield. Loss of productive land has led to lower family income, hunger, diseases and malnutrition.

Those that are already disadvantaged will suffer most from the effects of climate change. “Although all households are affected, the most affected households are female-headed households, child-headed households, the physically disabled and the elderly. Since impacts are high and adaptive capacity is low, the communities are highly vulnerable,” explained Mkwambisi.

Communities have tried their best to devise resourceful ways to cope with and adapt to the adverse impacts of extreme weather events. They have started to diversify crops, adjust the timing of farm operations, change tillage practice, store grain, irrigate, use indigenous genetic resources, utilise wetlands for winter production and raise smaller livestock, especially goats.

“Off-farm strategies include food rationing, casual labour, selling household assets and migration. Other options related to rural livelihoods include shifting homes to higher ground, hunting small animals, gathering and eating wild fruits and vegetables,” said Mkwambisi.

Such local level interventions have been supplemented by initiates from government and development partners, he adds, such as food and material donations, shallow well and borehole installation, construction for bridges and irrigation schemes, provision of medicine and other drugs.

But until such adaptation methods kick into gear, the adverse effects of climate change continue to wreck havoc on the lives of people in the country. In Nkhotakota in central Malawi, a 35-year-old pregnant woman, Grace Rajab, and her seven-year-old daughter, Alice, died in early January after lighting struck them during a storm. Grace’s son Henry sustained serious burns during the accident, which happened as the family was sitting down for dinner.

In December last year, stormy conditions displaced 500 families in Dedza, also in central Malawi, while another 177 families were left homeless and two people were injured by storms in lakeshore district Salima. Last November, seven people were injured and 25 houses collapsed during a powerful hailstorm that hit another lakeshore district, Mangochi.

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