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Pulling Malawi back from Storm Ana abyss

DESTITUTE—Household members in Chikwawa District

WASHED AWAY—A woman points at what used to be a field filled with green maize

By Charles Mkoka:

Seventy-year-old Gogo Siyeni from Ngabu in Chikwawa District has never known so much tears.

“I am an African woman, built to be strong,” she said in October last year when agricultural extension workers were introducing modern methods of farming to community members close to Mdulamoyo, a famous water crossing point there.

Last week, there was no sign of the iron willed woman who was ‘built’ to be strong— the quintessential African woman she is known to be.

Instead, here was a woman who was heart-broken.

It was on January 24 2022, when Tropical Storm Ana hit some parts of the country, with the greatest impact in the Shire Valley district of Chikwawa.

The waters that were induced by the storm did not just wash away her maize and sorghum crop— six hectares in total; they also went with her fifteen goats, exposing her cheeks to a barrage of tears.

“The last time I cried like that was when my Father, Timothy, died on February 4 1982. The only other time I have cried like that is this year. I have lost a lifetime, almost everything I counted on,” she said.

Malawi has experienced an increase in the frequency, intensity, and magnitude of extreme weather events over the last two decades. The country is particularly vulnerable to floods, droughts and strong winds associated with tropical storms and cyclones.

Modelling of future climate change scenarios by experts does not offer any relief; the country will experience substantive medium and long-term changes to temperature and rainfall patterns, which will further increase the impact of extreme events.

True to climate scientists’ prediction, in January 2022, the country experienced Tropical Storm Ana, which led to loss of life and caused large-scale devastation to public infrastructure facilities such as roads and bridges, property such as houses and livestock and destruction of power generation equipment.

For example, Kapichira Hydro Power Station lost 130 megawatts of power from the national grid and, according to Electricity Generation Company spokesperson Moses Gwaza, they have embarked on an Environmental Impact Assessment exercise as per the requirement.

The fact that the institution has engaged its insurers, the World Bank and other international organisations so that it can raise K15 billion to engage contractors and resume power generation works at Kapichira means Ana’s negative effects will linger longer than the days the natural phenomenon affected Malawi between January 24 and 27 this year.

Ironically, Kapichira is in Chikwawa District, Siyeni’s home village and the hardest hit district in Malawi. The main road was cut off at three points, rendering the two districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje inaccessible.

Services such as goods transportation as well as the provision of services, including humanitarian aid, were negatively affected.

Chikwawa District Commissioner, Alie Phiri, pleaded with the authorities to speedily rehabilitate the road to facilitate delivery of humanitarian support to people.

The agriculture sector suffered the greatest loss as a result of the storm, with devastating impacts on livelihoods.

Most smallholder farmers in Malawi are resource poor, with very limited capacity to contain shocks arising from climate change effects.

Estimates from the Department of Disaster Management Affairs showed, as of early February, that 946,000 people had been affected in the agriculture sector, and the affected included 107,000 farming families, 18,500 livestock keepers.

In addition, 115,500 hectares of crops were lost and 51,100 livestock affected.

Three days of continuous rains were responsible for the damage.

Expert reactions after Tropical Storm Ana

Tawachi Kaseghe, climate resource specialist of the Weather Chasers Group, observed that negative impacts of climate change appear to be on the rise.

“Tropical Storm Ana has taught us a lesson as life almost came to a halt in the two affected districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje. Tropical Storm Ana audited our adaptation approach and effectiveness. We were found lacking in our health, roads and other transportation infrastructure, education, housing, settlement and land usage systems,” noted Kaseghe with respect to the post-storm impact.

He added that increased access to climate information is key to helping Malawians avert catastrophes posed by storms and cyclones.

Dr Katharine Vincent of Kulima Integrated Development Solutions, who has been conducting studies on climate adaptation in Malawi, observed that it was the issue of future water availability that needed to be carefully considered for agriculture because irrigation is often considered to be the silver bullet for managing low rainfall.

“Conservation agriculture is very effective for managing dry conditions. Nature-based solutions in agriculture, or regenerative agriculture, which considers the health of an ecosystem, will also enable adaptation efforts,” she explained.

According to Vincent, the key in all adaptation drives is to make early decisions.

Vincent cited the recent Working Group 2 of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change 6thAssessment Report, which highlights that there is potential for adaptation but that the window for it is rapidly closing due to higher temperatures.

Stacia Nordin, a registered dietician at the Never-Ending Food and Permaculture organisation, called for behavioural change and quick action among Malawians.

“We need to change our mindset, systems (designs, plans, policies), and behaviours and habits,” Nordin said.

“Instead, we need massive biodiversity, revive indigenous resources that are being lost, restore balance and sustainable systems thinking and behaviour in all we do,” she added

All three researchers underlined the need to mainstream climate concerns into development.

Mainstreaming climate in development

In June 2021, the World Bank Group announced its new Climate Change Action Plan 2021-25 that aims to deliver record levels of climate finance to developing countries, help reduce emissions, strengthen adaptation and align financial flows with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

One of the commitments of the Plan is to implement a new diagnostic tool – the Country Climate and Development Report (CCDR) – to help countries align climate action and development efforts and absorb new climate-related technologies as they emerge.

For Malawi, the CCDR will help identify risks and opportunities for climate action by the public and private sectors and inform how the country’s development goals can be achieved without compromising on sustainability.

The CCDR will be validated and official dissemination is expected to be done in September, 2022.

When that is done, the hope is that storms and cyclones will no longer take Malawians by surprise. Fronting preparedness as a defence tool, prospects of victory in adversity can be heightened.

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