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Caught up in climate change chaos

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BECOMING FREQUENT—Armyworm
infestation

Two years ago, Rose Chimango dumped her small village near the banks of the Shire in Chikwawa District after the massive river, snaking through some 402 kilometres from Lake Malawi, burst through its banks and flattened houses and crop fields.

The raging waters also swept away two of her goats and heavily injured her three-year-old daughter whose cut on her little innocent face is still visible in its scar.

“We had stayed in that village for over 20 years but never experienced such a flood. It was intense. Water, together with strong winds, destroyed over 10 houses and seven people lost their lives in the process,” says Chimango, 43, who also lost her antiretroviral drugs in the chaos.

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She had just consumed half of her monthly batch when the accident— precipitated by incessant rainfall upstream—turned her family’s life upside down.

For 10 days, her family of five stayed at a makeshift camp put up by a humanitarian organisation which was among those that first responded to the disasters.

“I stayed for four days without taking my medication because the health centre I go to was several kilometres away and I did not have enough money for transport,” the single mother says.

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International HIV and Aids charity Avert highlighted during the time of the disaster, largely caused by a tropical cyclone that had swept through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, that many people on treatment were left at risk in the turmoil.

“[It] has left many people without healthcare, reducing access to HIV services. It is also increasing HIV risk, with reports of displaced women and girls being exposed to higher levels of sexual and gender-based violence in camps set up for those affected by the disaster,” Avert said that time.

Chimango claims some men took advantage of the crisis to sexually exploit some women and girls she knows.

“Anything, mostly bad, can happen in a disaster. To me, my biggest fear was continued defaulting on my treatment. Luckily, a certain organisation gave us some money which I used for transport to the health centre to collect my medication,” she says.

Her family acquired a piece of land outside her village, which now no longer exists, as everyone left to high-ground areas which the damaging floods could not reach.

Just a few months later, they decided to relocate to their home village in Dedza District where Chimango thought the destructive effects of climate change would elude her.

“Just last year, my three-acre maize field got heavily infested with fall armyworms. Despite benefitting from farm inputs subsidised by the government, I harvested half of what I had expected.

“While things have been better this year, we don’t know whether the armyworms won’t strike again because we hear we are not completely done with them,” Chimango says long-sufferingly.

Treating the worms with herbs—as recommended by other farmers in her location—only addressed the problem a little.

Crop scientists state that the fall armyworm is a major pest that can greatly reduce maize production and that climate change will continue threatening maize production, as projections estimate an increase of the outbreaks.

During the pests’ worst attack in recent memory, then-president Peter Mutharika was in 2017 forced to declare 20 districts across the country disaster areas.

The country’s staple crop, maize, was heavily infested by the pest with about half of fields under attack.

Experts came together to bang heads and devise lasting solutions to the pest which had spread through a larger part of southern Africa.

“We have not heard much about any progress in how we can deal with the pests if they break out again. We just heard authorities were trialling some chemicals but so far, we don’t have information on the chemicals,” Chimango says.

She just hopes the moth native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, that has now spread globally, will not visit her crop fields again.

But with scientists warning changes in climate will continue triggering a rise in destructive pests, Chimango’s wishes may just remain that.

In fact, even her ‘escape’ from the traditionally flood-prone Chikwawa does not guarantee everlasting safety from climate change-induced disasters.

No part of Malawi, according to conservation and climate change experts, is totally safe from disasters.

Civil Society Network on Climate Change National Coordinator, Julius Ng’oma, argues while the country has made progress in putting in place policies to avert serious impacts of climate change, glaring gaps still exist when it comes to implementing the policies.

“We have several policies and strategies related to climate change and disaster risk management developed over the past 10 years.

“We have developed a climate change policy but the challenge is that we don’t have the actual legislation in place. We need an Act of Parliament for enforcing the policies,” Ng’oma says.

His other worry is that the government is not investing much in climate change strategies which it formulates.

“The government has even put in place climate change measures in the highest possible frameworks such as the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy and the Agenda 2063 but funding has always been the challenge,” Ng’oma says.

He further charges that without adequately funding climate change policies and strategies, Malawi should forget about sufficiently mitigating impacts of climate change which loom at every corner of the country.

According to Ng’oma, the coming in of the private sector would be critical in climate change affairs and could help in solving some raging challenges which are putting lives of Malawians on edge.

“But it appears we are not engaging them. Getting them on board might help in addressing funding gaps that have been there over the years,” he sums up.

Perhaps, that would also partly put people in flood prone areas of the Shire Valley, which Chimango left a year-and-a-half ago, out of harm’s way.

The 2019 storm that caused catastrophic damage and a humanitarian crisis across their villages has left dark images in the minds of these people who lost relatives and thousands of homes.

A series of increasingly frequent and severe weather events are said to have magnified the impact of the tropical cyclone. Weather experts say an El Niño drought, intensified by climate change, had struck much of Southern Africa for months before the cyclone hit.

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