Shrinking recovery space amid faltering resilience
By Mathews Malata
After a long day working on his small piece of land about 500 metres from the Shire River in the Southern Region district of Chikwawa in Malawi, Mateyu Chilachila and his family retired to bed in readiness for another busy day. It was a busy week of uprooting weeds in the family’s small farm. Chilachila and his wife were determined to save their crops – maize, sorghum, tomatoes, bananas and sugarcane.
It was not to be as, the following day, rains fell in droves, a development the Department of Climate Change and Metrological Services (DCCMS) attributed to Tropical Storm Ana.
When warning messages followed, on both national and community radio stations, civil protection committees and other non-profit groups at district level quickly got together and started sending warning messages to people in their communities.
Ideally, the rainy season in Malawi starts in September, but, like most parts of the country, the Shire Valley only experienced an uptick in rainfall activities from January 2022, marking the end of one of the hottest seasons, which saw Nsanje and Chikwawa districts recording temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius.
Inevitably, raindrops hitting farmers’ foreheads made them feel good, and their smiles got big as the ground got wet, turning the dusty ground into a muddy and slippery terrain.
January 24 marked the second day of heavy rains, and Chilachila got wind of news that heavy rains could cause floods in some parts of the country. He decided to treat the warnings lightly because major flooding that happened in 2015 and 2019 did not affect him.
Just a few hours into his deep sleep at 11:00 pm, Chilachila was awakened by his wife, who felt uncomfortable with the storm. He recalls that it was dark, noisy and a bit odd. With the aid of a dim light from his small phone, he went out to inspect the house. Soon, he noted deep cracks in the wall and, together with his wife and three children, sought refuge in another house almost a kilometre away.
The next morning, he went back to his home and found it completely defaced. Three wars were down, rendering him homeless.
This morning, he never had a chance to get closer to his field as the water levels had hit a record high, reaching places one would not think could be affected. Farmers became witnesses to their own pain as they watched the Shire River rip through their plots and homes.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,’’ said Chilachila, a 48-year-old seasoned farmer who has lived in Kadula Village all his life. “My life depends on what is now under the water. I invested all my money, energy, and time in farming but everything I invested in is gone now.
Last year, he realised about K50,000 ($55.5) from the okra he sold at a local market, K120,000 ($133.3) from tomatoes and 10 bags of maize weighing 50 kilograms each. He used part of the money to pay school fees for two of his six children and basic needs for his home. He used another chink of the money for buying two pigs, one of which succumbed to disease and another one died in the floods.
His hope is that the government will identify a new piece of land where he can relocate to farm and settle with his family. He is not sure whether the same government will provide him with seed and fertiliser. Above all, has less than 60 days to the end of the rainy season, raising doubts on prospects of replanting crops he has lost.
At Mambundungu camp in neighboring Nsanje District, 73-year old Peter Jimu had been displaced and lost crops from his two plots, one located upland and another close to the Shire River. This was the first time he had experienced such a catastrophe, he said.
“This area is usually hit by drought and the case was no different last year. As part of my survival plan, I bought a piece of land close to the river, where I do irrigation farming, but, now, everything is gone and I have nothing to lean on,” said Jimu, who in 2015 relocated from a flooded area to Mambundungu Village, which has been severely hit by floods for the first time in recent history.
“It looks like nature is angry with us and there is no safe place for everyone because I can’t make sense out of what has just happened to me,” Jimu narrated.
He lost 2.5 hectares of sorghum upland and 0.5 hectares of rice close to the Shire River. He was a lead farmer in using climate smart technologies, including planting early maturing varieties.
Jimu, who lost count of his children but they are over 10 and looks after orphans and his four wives, is now hopeless.
Westey Tizola fled from the flood-prone area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Nyachikadza and was seeking refuge at Bitirinyu camp in the area of T/A Ndamera. In his area, they only grow rice and, at the time of the interview, all the villages and farms were under flood waters.
“I have left behind 25 cows, 35 goats, 15 ducks and chickens and I doubt I will find all these alive because, at the time we fled the area, I could see most of the livestock battling to survive.”
In Nsanje, 1,300 hectares of crops (maize, millet, sorghum, sesame and cowpeas) were destroyed, with over 36,082 households affected.
The deluge did not spare farmers in Balaka District, where vast farmland has been turned into what looks like sand beaches.
Esther Malemba, from Phimbi Village, is one of the survivors and attests that this kind of devastation is the first of its kind. She lost 1.5 hectares of maize and she remains stranded: More so because she has no money for buying seed and restart everything.
Across the country, crops on more than 115,000 hectares have been destroyed, affecting more than 106,000 farming households. Forty six people died, while eighteen others were counted as missing two weeks after the floods.
The Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction of 2015, to which Malawi is a party, encourages governments to develop robust national disaster risk reduction plans to reduce the risk of disasters.
In a recent interview special representative of the UN Secretary General on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Mami Mizutori advised the country to mainstream DRR interventions at all levels.
She said: ’’ So I know Malawi is focusing a lot on disaster risk reduction. We have had good conversations with the government and we do think that a country like Malawi needs to put more financing into disaster risk reduction and prevention. They need to make disaster risk policy all over the government, involving civil society, local governments and media, but the government must lead the process as the Senda Framework says risk is everyone’s business and the Sendai Framework can only be achieved through a whole society approach.’’
In addition to the National Agriculture Investment Plan (NAIP) and the National Resilience Strategy (NRS), Malawi prioritises agriculture in the Malawi 2063 vision.
However, if farmers like Chilachila continue to suffer such tragedies with no room for recovery, it will be a long time before the planned outcomes are achieved.