Panic runs through some farming communities in Malawi like a meandering river in a limitless 'forest' of sand.
The rains started somewhat 'unfaithfully', giving room to the sun to scorch crops at will, and leave farmers struggling to raise more funds for for fertiliser and seeds. Replanting was no longer a question of 'to do' or 'not'; it was a must.
Where I stay-- in Chiwembe, that is-- even those who can afford a bag of maize wore sadness on their faces. Who doesn't appreciate a green cob of maize from the backyard?
But, finally, the rains are on us. And have started wrecking havoc, too.
Where I went today-- Mwanza in Southern Malawi-- the sun was left with more room to scorch the maize crop than a downpour would cure. Now, the maize crop-- at one metre tall-- has stopped growing up and is flowering.
And, then, flush floods are on us in some parts of the country again. Like at Mtayamoyo in the Lower Shire. It rained curses and blessings on Tuesday that a five-year-old child was swept away and some crops were submerged in water.
Surely, it is going to be a mixed year. But not as worse as the 2014/15 growing season.
In case we have forgotten, here is a recap of how life was like and how people struggled to tame the rains and the destruction that followed.
The rains had been anticipated, though nobody expected that they would also destroy what the crops they were supposed to help blossom.
In the end, the January floods in the 2014/15 agricultural season will forever be remembered as an act of nature that forced President Peter Mutharika’s hand to make the first— the State of the Nation Address aside— major decision eight months into his presidency.
What was surprising about the January floods was the fact that they occurred at a time farmers had been expecting unreliable rains after the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services statement announced in a statement on September 8 that the season would be marked by an El Nino spell.
The department added that the country would receive “generally favourable amounts of rainfall”.
“The key factors expected to influence the rainfall over Malawi during the 2014/15 rainfall season include the Sea Surface Temperatures over the tropical oceans of Pacific, Indian and Atlantic. Currently, a weak El-Nino is expected to develop over the Eastern Central Equatorial Pacific Ocean.
“This phenomenon affects rainfall patterns over southern Africa, including Malawi, and is generally associated with erratic rains over the region. The phenomenon is expected to persist up to early part of 2015, hence affecting the 2014/15 rainfall season over the region,” the statement read in part.
El Nino, for us to be on the same page, is a phenomenon which is caused by unusual warming of waters over the Eastern Central Equatorial Pacific Ocean, a development that culminates in depressed rainfall. When temperatures are lower than average, the condition is called La Nina.
The development came after international climate experts and the Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum meeting held in Windhoek, Namibia, in August last year, indicated that, “During October to December 2014, the Southern half of Malawi is expected to have normal to above normal rainfall amounts while the Northern half will have normal to below normal rainfall amounts.”
They further indicated that the southern half of Malawi would have normal to below normal rainfall amounts while the Northern half would receive normal to above normal rainfall amounts between January and March 2015.
The rains did come, of course, but they simply could not stop falling— culminating in the destruction of property worth millions.
Ironically, against the fears of El Nino came rains that could simply not stop falling. Indeed, as the year 2015 draws to a close, some of the victims of the heavy rains are yet to travel back to anything like normal life.
Take, for instance, the case of Talley Losha, the head teacher at Chikonje Primary School in Nsanje.
When rains started falling around 8 o’clock in the morning of January 12, 2015, he had a wife and a child.
Remembers Losha: “As time elapsed, around 6 o’clock in the evening, water flooded the whole sitting room. However, we thought that the situation would be okay, and we stayed put. This was despite the fact that, by this time, the sitting room wall had collapsed.
“But things came to a stand-still around 1 o’clock in the morning. The whole house collapsed. That’s when I realised that raging waters had flooded into the house, and the waters swept me, my wife, our child, and another child we were staying with.
“Fortunately, we managed to cling to trees and, later, we found safety in trees. I sought refuge in a tree some 250 metres from my house, while my wife and our child climbed a tree located some 400 metres from our house.”
In the end, his wife and child were swept away by the raging waters and their bodies have never been recovered.
How, then, can he travel back to anything like normal life— with the void in his heart.
The year 2015 could also be described as a year when one disaster followed another. If the news was not about floods, it was about hunger, victims sleeping in classrooms, cholera taking its toll on those who had survived the floods and hunger.
Meanwhile, the Centre for Social Concern (CfSC) has warned that the country faces food insecurity threats due to unpredictable rains and floods. To make matters worse, the Centre for Social Concern (CfSC) announced that maize, the country’s stable food, was becoming a “tricky” crop to produce due to changes in climate.
In its Basic Needs Basket report for March, CfSC observed that, “To make matters worse, most farmers are still cultivating unimproved varieties that are less productive and resilient to climate change. The recent floods that have hit half of the countries’ districts, have been a wakeup call to farming households and indeed all the stakeholders in the country to rethink the heavy reliance on maize for staple food needs,” reads part of CfSC’s indictment in the report.
“To safeguard the livelihoods of Malawians from economic wide effects of the floods and erratic rains, CfSC believes that there is need for collaborative efforts by all stakeholders to institute and implement pragmatic short, medium and long term strategies that will ameliorate peoples’ suffering and ensure food security at all the times,” added the CfSC the report.
Coming after FEWSNET had indicated in its February Food Security Outlook that an estimated one million households had been affected by the floods and approximately 105, 000 metric tonnes of cropped maize has been washed away across the country due to the floods, the news could not get worse for Malawi.
This was before the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee had indicated that an estimated 615,837 people would need assistance in flood affected areas for two to five months from March 2015onwards, requiring an equivalent of 23,750 tonnes of maize.
This was bad news on top of bad news because Civil Society Agriculture Network had just announced that maize production in the 2014/ 2015 would drop by at least 30 percent.
But the monkey of the 2015 did not get off the back of Mutharika who, nine months after the January floods, was forced to make a frantic call for food assistance on Monday, September 21. He made the call before his departure for the U.S. to attend the 70th United Nations General Assembly.
Countries such as the United States (US) immediately responded to Mutharika’s call, donating $15.7 million [about 9 billion] worth of food commodities.
U.S. Ambassador to Malawi, Virginia Palmer, said in a statement that, “This assistance is in response to the September 21 appeal for donor support of up to US$146.4 million (K 84 billion) by the Government of Malawi following the Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) findings in July 2015.”
The statement adds that The UN World Food Program would receive and distribute the United States food donation of 6,250 metric tonnes of beans and 2,810 metric tonnes of vitamin A & D fortified vegetable oil as part of a larger food basket designed to meet the nutritional requirements of those in need.
According to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee, 2.8 million people face hunger in 24 districts, necessitating the need for food assistance between the months of October 2015 and March 2016. The development has been blamed on the late onset of rains, severe flooding, mid-season dry spells, and early ending of rains, reducing the country’s maize crop production by 30 percent.
On its part, the government has been setting the ball roling.
Mutharika said on September 21 that his administration was ready to support the 2.8 million people facing hunger and using its own resources has bought 30,000
metric tons of maize from Zambia at the cost of K2.82 billion, and it
is in the process of buying additional 26,000 metric tons, at the
value of about K3.5 billion.
Said Mutharika: “This maize will be used to stabilise the price of the
commodity on the market through Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation across the country.The
Strategic Grain Reserve currently has maize in stock and it continues
to be replenished. The government is therefore; ready to roll out
food relief to food insecure households during the lean period from
October, 2015, to March 2016, as recommended by MVAC.”
Mutharika also said, following the MVAC food insecurity report,
the government has developed the 2015/2016 Food Insecurity Response Plan
which requires a total of US$146.378 million.
This year’s challenges notwithstanding, there is some positive news emanating from the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA).
DoDMA spokesperson, Jeremiah Mphande, said on November 29 that reports submitted by District Disaster Risk Management officers indicated that food distribution exercises started as early as October in some districts.
“[For example] World Vision (WV) started the distribution for 2015/16 MVAC [Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee] response in Chikwawa on October 1. These distributions marked the commencement of the response to the July 2015 MVAC report. The distributions started with focusing on the flood affected as the team was concurrently conducting registration processes for dry spell affected households in the district,” said Mphande.
Other organisations, including Gift of the Givers, have also been helping victims. Immediately after the floods, the charity embarked on a household food recovery programme aimed at supporting families that were affected by the floods with farming inputs.
Through the project, which is being supported by Malawi Relief Fund in the United Kingdom, the organisation is distributing farmers’ packs containing 10kg of CAN fertilizer, 10kg of Urea, 2kg maize seed, 2kg legume seed and a hoe.
The organisation has since January been assisting the flood victims with relief items such as maize flour, tinned fish, likuni phala, plastic sheets, kitchen utensils, blankets, washing powder and Oral rehydration salt (ORS) in 8 of the 15 districts namely; Nsanje, Chikwawa, Phalombe, Thyolo, Mulanje, Mangochi, Machinga and Balaka.
Other humanitarian organisations such as the World Food Programme also went around with a begging bowl, after announcing that it needed a whopping USD 10.8 million (approximately K5 billion) to scale-up the floods response and satisfy the needs of 616, 00 people it described as “food insecure flood victims”.
After the devastation 2015 imposed on Malawi, one only wonders what 2016 will be like.