Fatima Chimbalanga is a worried mother. She harvested 231 pails of groundnuts during the 2014/15 agriculture season against 400 pails during the previous season.
She attributes the drop to a dry spell that hit the area and she is one of the victims of the food shortage that is sweeping across the country.
She comes from Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwansambo, the only area renowned for farming in Nkhotakota, thriving on groundnuts and maize production.
“Although I have not taken full stock of my production, I am expecting to harvest about 20 bags of maize. Most of the bags are from a small portion where I practised conservation agriculture.
“On the large portion, the dry spell heavily affected the output because I harvested few bags. Many families are food insecure in this area due to the dry spell,” says Chimbalanga.
According to 2015 Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac) report, 10,945 people in T/A Mwansambo and 27,090 people in T/A Mwadzama in Nkhotakota would this year be without food due to the dry spell.
The agriculture sector, which is the backbone for Malawi’s economy, is vulnerable to natural hazards such as dry spells, droughts and floods which greatly affect food production because of the country’s overreliance on rain-fed agriculture.
Due to floods and dry spells that hit the country early this year, national macro-economic performance and forecast shows that the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate would slightly decrease in 2015 down to 5.4 percent from an estimated 6.0 percent in 2014.
According to the Mvac report, Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security estimates that Malawi would produce 2, 776, 277 metric tonnes of maize in 2014/15 growing season, down from 3, 978, 123 metric tonnes during the previous agriculture season.
Mvac also projects that 2.8 million people in the 25 districts, including Nkhotakota face food shortage requiring about 124,183 metric tonnes of maize.
John Zakaliya, a rice farmer at Kaombe Scheme in Nkhotakota, says farmers were taken unawares by the dry spell because there was no early warning regarding the disaster from the Meteorological Department.
“We were only informed of late onset of rains but not early cessation of rains. This has adversely affected farmers at our scheme where we are 320 in total. Each farmer has a half acre from which he was harvesting about 17 bags but this season most of us have harvested three bags.
“Worse still, we took loans to buy fertiliser and the proceeds of our little harvest have been used to settle the debt. We are facing food shortage and a 50kg bag of maize is at K8, 000,” says Zakaliya.
Farmers are advised to plant early maturing varieties and practise conservation agriculture as the nature and pattern of weather-related hazards is changing due to climate change which is one of the most critical challenges facing the global development agenda.
The under-provision of climate stability and the manifestation of vulnerability to extreme weather events and food crises have been a recurring threat in different regions of the world.
According to 2014 UNDP Human Development Report, vulnerability threatens human development and unless it is systematically addressed, by changing policies and social norms, progress will be neither equitable nor sustainable.
Countries and communities that are underprepared, that are unaware of risks and that have minimal preventive capacity, suffer the impact of disasters far more severely. Greater efforts are needed to strengthen national and regional early warning systems.
National Disaster Risk Management Policy recognises that an integrated and people-centred early warning system is necessary for effective disaster preparedness and response. Access to timely and meaningful early warning information enables people to act timely and appropriately. This reduces the possibility of injury and loss of lives and livelihoods, and enables people to take measures to limit damage to property and the environment.
Nevertheless, some of the equipment and processes for gathering early warning data are outdated, dysfunctional and insufficient. The flood early warning system, for example, only covers the major rivers, leaving out many small rivers which also cause a lot of flooding.
Nkhotakota District Water Officer, Oswald Nkhuwa, however, says through Early Warning System Project, his office is constructing automated hydrometric stations in Kaombe, Chiluwa and Lifidzi rivers to assist people in warning them when water levels are rising to horrendous levels due to heavy rains.
“Since the hydrometric stations will be automated, communication will be instant, thereby aiding people to move to safer places in time. Currently, we use manual gauging stations but they are obsolete and slow to respond to disasters,” says Nkhuwa.
He indicates that communities would be sensitised to know their roles and to protect the stations from vandalism.
The Department of Disaster Management Affairs is implementing the Early Warning System Project in seven districts prone to disasters, including Nkhotakota, to enhance capacity building on meteorological and water sectors to forecast extreme weather, hydrology and climate change.
The project is aimed at establishing functional network of meteorological service and hydrological monitoring station so as to develop and disseminate tailored weather and climate information to meet the needs of end-users like farmers and fishermen.
Head of Climate Change and Research, Fred Kossam, says one of the objectives of the project is to enhance the capacity of his department to generate timely and accurate weather and climate information for early warning purposes as part of the disaster risk reduction.
“In terms of forecasting, we are going to undertake specific capacity building courses and programmes on convective weather systems which are associated with adverse and extreme weather events,” he says.
It is the desire of government that information on disaster risk management be made accessible to everybody in a form that will be understood and enable people take positive actions to tackle the disaster risks by adopting resilience enhanced practices.
Due to the importance of weather, climate and early warning systems in disaster risk management, National Disaster Risk Management Communication Strategy has deliberately emphasized the need to integrate issues of weather, climate and early warning systems as a way of preparing communities for disasters like floods.
In enhancing resilience to drought, dry spells and floods, Kossam says his department issues special weather forecast for extreme weather events for floods, heavy storms as well as drought.
He indicates that the users are also trained in the project areas on how to interpret the weather forecasts that the department issues.
“Through the project, we have also procured and installed numerical weather production facilities which are testing at 7km grid resolution. Once this is operational, we will be able to issue very accurate and area specific forecasts,” says Kossam.
This will be imperative in addressing the public outcry that the department provides general and technical information. Accurate and area specific forecasts will be crucial for communities to prepare in advance thereby minimising damage to life and property including crops.
Climate Change Impact on Agriculture and Costs of Adaptation Report by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute warned that “the negative effects of climate change on crop production are especially pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa, as the agriculture sector accounts for a large share of GDP, export earnings and employment in most African countries”.
The report indicates that by 2050, in Sub-Saharan Africa, average rice, wheat and maize yields would decline by up to 14 percent, 22 per cent and five percent respectively as a result of climate change. This decline would lead to more malnutrition especially of children.
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