The new government took over affairs of the state at the most critical time for Malawi. According to the Multidimensional Poverty Index released recently by the UNDP, just over half of the country’s population live in a situation of multidimensional poverty. A similar proportion live under the national poverty line, which increases to 70% when considering the global poverty line of $1.90 per day. Food insecurity is a chronic issue – often exacerbated by shocks.
With so many people already living in precarious conditions, it is not surprising that shocks have a significant impact on lives, livelihoods and the economy.
Following the 2015 floods government and development partners put renewed emphasis on breaking the cycle to avoid the situation of recurrent food insecurity that plagues so many Malawians. Discussions commenced on a new National Resilience Strategy, with the tagline “Breaking the cycle of food insecurity in Malawi”, pioneered by then- (and now-) Vice President, Dr Saulos Chilima.
A National Resilience Strategy (NRS) is critical for Malawi because on top of a situation of chronic food insecurity, there are increasing occurrences of shocks that further undermine lives and livelihoods. And these shocks are becoming more common. So common, in fact, that a state of disaster has been declared in 5 of the 6 last years – for various reasons.
In 2015 major floods affected nearly 3 million people, costing over $300 million dollars in losses and nearly $500 million dollars in recovery costs. This was rapidly followed by the El Nino-induced drought in the 2015/16 rainy season, leading to another disaster being declared in 2016 – this time affecting one-third of the population. In 2017 an infestation of fall armyworm led to disaster being declared in 20 out of 28 districts. 2018 offered a year of relative respite, before flooding associated with the passage of tropical cyclone Idai in March 2019 affected nearly a million people, resulting in another state of disaster being declared. 2020 saw the spread of coronavirus, leading to a state of disaster being declared in March.
The chain of disasters facing Malawi clearly poses a threat to most recovery efforts as there seem to be no enough rebuilding space between one disaster to another. Consequently, reducing deaths, economic losses and affected people as stated in the 2015 Sendai Framework For Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) will not be an easy milestone for Malawi to attain by 2030.
Depressing enough, coronavirus is projected to cause economic growth to decline by half in 2020 compared to last year, risking food insecurity for the two-third of Malawians who are reliant on purchasing at least some of their staple food from the market. In addition, most households have at least one source of non-farm income, such as microenterprises or day labour, which involve social contact. Coronavirus puts households in the terrible position of choosing between protecting their health by obeying social distancing guidelines - or earning the money they need to invest in healthy food and their children’s education.
We also cannot forget that we are currently past the first half of the year. We haven’t yet reached the riskiest time of the year for weather extremes. It is currently too early to have robust forecasts for summer rainfall, so we do not know if rains will arrive early or late, or whether they will be good or poor. A weather-related disaster on top of the current situation would spell catastrophe for many Malawians.
Building resilience now is critical so as not to always have to play catch up. Malawi has made promising progress in many areas in recent years, in particular around health and education. But the same is not the case for poverty eradication, where progress is repeatedly stalled by recurring disasters. This situation is only liken to worsen in the future with new patterns of risk. Climate change is changing the nature of extreme weather events that leads to disasters, and extreme rainfall events (both floods and drought) are likely to become more common. This means that all development decisions taken now should consider the future nature of climate risk so as to build resilience.
Building resilience now is critical so as not to always have to play catch up. Malawi has made promising progress in many areas in recent years, in particular around health and education.
What does building resilience look like? A resilient system is one that is able to anticipate, absorb and adapt to shocks and stresses whilst minimising negative impacts. The National Resilience Strategy contains four pillars that address resilience at different levels: from the household to the catchment to the economy; it also identifies two cross-cutting issues that need to be addressed to enable sustainable progress in the pillars.
Pillar 1 aims for resilient agricultural growth. Resilient agricultural growth is particularly important given that agriculture contributes a significant proportion to Malawi’s economy, as well as creating livelihoods for the majority of the population. But critical questions need to be asked about what this looks like.
Sustainable irrigation development is one activity within this pillar. The National Irrigation Policy and National Irrigation Master Plan contains details of the areas of the country suitable for irrigation – but these were not modelled taking into account future water availability under climate change. If climate risk and its effects on water availability are not taken into account, there is a risk that decisions will be made that will prove to be unsustainable in the long run.
That is not to say that this information is not available. Malawi University of Science and Technology has been working with the University of Leeds on two major research projects – UMFULA and AFRICAP – that are looking at how climate change will affect water availability and the implications for crop suitability. The University of Malawi (Chancellor College) and LEAD South East Africa, together with partners in the BRECcIA project, are looking at water availability in a number of catchments, and the policy incoherence that gives rise to unclear messaging on whether or not to farm close to river channels. Ensuring that emerging research evidence feeds into policy will enable climate-resilient decisions to be made.
The Tonse Alliance campaigned with promises including the creation of one million jobs and a universal fertiliser subsidy. Ensuring that these campaign promises contribute to resilience in Malawi is critical. The one million jobs can be green jobs that contribute to environmental protection and ecosystem resilience whilst simultaneously enabling socio-economic development. And the fertiliser subsidy should take into account the future growing potential of crops in Malawi considering the likely future changes in climate, thereby encouraging diversification and reduction in risk from droughts and floods.
Investing in well-informed, sustainable decisions now is essential if we are to break the cycles of poverty and vulnerability and build a resilient Malawi for this and future generations. We cannot afford to wait.