Climate change affects Malawi’s poorest the hardest

Published: 17 June 2016 6:30 CET

By: Thea Rabe, Norwegian Red Cross

Heavy floods and an unusually strong drought have tormented the region of Nsanje in southern Malawi over the past three years.  The local population is now facing starvation.

In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, the effects of climate change are severe, affecting all levels of society. In the rainy season of 2014 – 2015, heavy floods hit the southern region. People had to flee their homes and crop fields were washed out, leaving the soil without seeds to plant in the coming season.

This year, instead of the expected rainy season where there is heavy rain for weeks, the region of Nsanje is among several experiencing severe drought. Malawi has a population of 17 million people, 90 per cent of whom depend on agriculture to survive. Currently, between 6 and 8 million people are affected by the drought.

The price of maize has doubled in the past several months as supply cannot keep up with demand. With the national grain reserve now empty, families are now only allowed to purchase 20 kilograms of maize at a time. The government is also looking to neighbouring countries to purchase food from them.

Learning to live with ever-changing weather patterns

“The trend is that the frequency of floods and dry spells is increasing. And these climate changes are affecting the poorest people as they do not have access to modern farming techniques,” explains Roster Kufandiko, assistant disaster manager at the Malawi Red Cross Society. He knows the region of Nsanje well after visiting it monthly for the past several years. This year, he says, it has only rained two full days, which is exceptionally low. The result is severe food shortages. 

“The people here rely on rainfall, and they rely on their crop fields to give them food. Now with the drought and the increasing food prices, they are facing starvation,” Kufandiko adds.

In Malawi, most people utilize their land based on knowledge passed on through generations. The seasonal rain and sun have been the indicators of when and where to plant and harvest. With the current climate changes affecting the southern region of Nsanje, these traditional farming methods are no longer a trusted way of farming. There is an acute need to adapt to the climate changes, but the locals have little means to help them with this adaptation, Roster Kufandiko explains.

“To start with irrigation, and new ways of preserving food, they need assistance.  We as the Red Cross need more funding to help these people to learn to utilize their land in a new way. It’s urgent, because they are already without food,” Kufandiko adds.

In May 2016, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) increased its Emergency Appeal to 3,590,677 Swiss francs to support the Malawi Red Cross Society in assisting 25,000 of the most vulnerable people affected by the drought. Activities include monthly mobile cash transfers, as well as agricultural and nutritional training for farmers and their families. The Appeal is currently 15 per cent funded.