By Pauline Mbukwa & Richard Nyoni
If, four years ago, one trekked to Kamwanza Village, Group Village Head William Ngwenya, under Inkosi Mmbelwa in Mzimba District, they were likely to come face-to-face with a crestfallen Hudson Mwanza.
The member of Mwawiwithu Farmer Field School (FFS), which has 13 men and 17 women as members, was fed up with the unpredictability of the weather.
“And I did not know how to deal with the problem,” he said.
Which is not surprising because, of late, Malawi has come under a barrage of attacks from natural forces, a development that has negatively affected community members’ livelihoods.
The frequency of these covariate shocks has increased of late. Floods, associated with storms, have resulted in the destruction of life and property, with the country registering huge losses in gross domestic product terms.
Cyclone Idai in 2019 and, this year, storms Ana and Gombe are examples of climate-related hazards which have disrupted livelihoods of millions of people in the country. These climate shocks have had a devastating impact on crop and livestock production.
This is where early warning systems come into play.
Among other advantages, their use helps stakeholders reduce levels of vulnerability. Most importantly, warning information improves levels of preparedness and response to climate-related hazards.
The Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) is mandated to monitor, predict and provide information on weather and climate that would contribute towards the socio-economic development of Malawi.
However, inadequate and poorly distributed functional observational stations are some of the challenges the department is facing, such that they [challenges] are likely to impede the goal of the policy.
“DCCMS faces a number of challenges such as reduction in the number of institutions that provide reliable observation sites and volunteer observers for rainfall, vandalism of monitoring systems, irregular observations and submission of rainfall data from some volunteer observers and inadequate and irregular resources to enable effective training for volunteer observers,” bemoaned Lucy Mtilatila, DCCMS acting Director.
Mtilatila further explained that Malawi used to have over 800 rainfall stations across the country in the early 1980s but, before 2018, operational rainfall stations were around 200, with less than 100 regularly reporting observations.
In order to address the challenges, the Kutukula Ulimi M’Malawi (Kulima) Better Extension Training Transforming Economic Returns (Better) Project, using funds from the European Union, has established a total of 145 rainfall observatory stations in Malawi.
In these stations, the project procured and installed 145 rain gauges in 10 districts, covering an estimated 29,000 square kilometres.
Furthermore, the initiative supported onsite training of 190 rain gauge readers to ensure that precipitation data are correctly measured, recorded, and shared with stakeholders for early warning and early action.
“We are engaging lead farmers, head teachers in school institutions and village civil protection committees as data readers. In additional, some of the DCCMS weather stations have benefitted through installation of the rain gauges enabling the local communities to access rainfall data,” Mtilatila said.
“We have been engaging 10 communities in the dissemination of early warning system information. These are Tuntufye FM, Mzimba Community Radio, Voice of Livingstonia, Radio Tigabane, Nkhotakota Community radio, Chisomo FM, Blantyre Synod, Mzati FM, Chirundu FM and Kasungu Community Radio.
The radio programmes have helped farmers access early warning information and embrace improved farming practices in view of climate change,” said Peter Soko, Better Project Chief of Party.
These observatory stations were strategically installed across 10 districts, namely Mulanje, Chiradzulu, Thyolo, Salima, Nkhotakota, Kasungu, Mzimba, Nkhata Bay, Karonga and Kasungu.
Apart from capturing precipitation data, these stations are being used by primary schools as learning aids for geography lessons. Construction companies, notably those in the road construction sector, are also using data from these observatory stations to help them make informed decisions on the type and proportion of materials to use for construction.
Mwanza’s FFS group is one of the products of the Kulima Better initiative, a brainchild of Plan International.
In its initial phase of implementation, the project conducted a participatory vulnerability capacity assessment in the area and identified drought as one of the main hazards affecting farmers’ productivity.
“We used to have uncertainties as to when the rains were going to start and how the rainy season would pan out,” explains Mwanza, a member of Mwawiwithu FFS.
“This affected our production as we gambled a lot with our farming, resulting in crop loss which affected our food security and livelihoods as a whole,” he says.
As a way of addressing this challenge, the project procured and installed rain gauges in all the extension planning areas to capture accurate data on rainfall in real time.
Data collectors were then trained in recording and reporting rainfall patterns. This information is then consolidated at district level and shared with community radios for dissemination.
“I make sure to tune in to Mzimba Community Radio because I listen to weather updates every day and make informed decisions on activities that I can do on my field,” Mwanza indicates.
A 2021 study indicated that 64 percent of 278,124 active smallholder farmers received early warning information during the year. 46 percent received early warning information about the late onset of rains, 35 percent received information about erratic rainy season and 33 percent received information regarding early onset of the rainy season.
The installation of the stations has improved access to, and usage of, data by experts in hydrometeorology to monitor and understand precipitation across the country as well as ground-truth measurement to validate weather and seasonal forecasts.
The initiative is implemented by Self Help Africa/United Purpose, ActionAid Malawi, Plan International Malawi and Evangelical Association of Malawi.
The hope is that, through informed knowledge, the bullet that is natural disasters can, somehow, be avoided; if not avoided altogether, at least its impact on people’s lives can be reduced. This is what 12,943 farmer field schools, with a total membership of 380,991 smallholder farmers, are doing.