Mary Lyford, a widow and subsistence farmer from Mbande village in southern Malawi’s Chikhwawa District, has seven mouths to feed, besides her own, and little idea how she will sustain her family over the next 12 months.
Last September, she planted maize and sorghum on her family’s one hectare plot, but erratic rains forced her to replant in January. Dry weather again wilted her crops and like many other farmers in the region, she will harvest nothing this year.
A January survey conducted by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC), which comprises several government departments, UN agencies and NGOs, estimated that 272,000 Malawians in 10 of the country's 28 districts, all but one of them in the south, were food insecure and would need assistance through a lean season likely to extend into April and May because of the long dry spells.
The figure was up from an initial estimate of just over 200,000 partly due to a steep hike in the price of maize towards the end of 2011 caused by Malawi’s chronic shortages of fuel and foreign exchange.
Between January and March, Lyford’s household was among the lucky few in her village to receive monthly food rations from the government, with support from the World Food Programme (WFP) and international NGO World Vision. But the family received their final distribution in March and the government has yet to act on MVAC’s recommendation that food distribution be extended by a further two months and reach an additional 70,000 people.
Lack of donor funding
Coordinator of the Department of Disaster Management Affairs James Chiusiwa told IRIN that Cabinet had recently made a decision to extend food distribution into April and May, but that WFP was still in talks with its donors to source the necessary funding.
“It’s difficult to say when it could resume,” he said.
In an emailed response to questions from IRIN, WFP confirmed that it was appealing to donors for support to extend food assistance, but that it had not yet received any contributions.
Chief of Lyford’s village, Stephano Mbande, pointed out that nearly all of the 500 households in his village needed food assistance, not just the 18 that had so far benefited from food distributions, and that they would need help, not just for the next two months but until the next harvest in March 2013.
“In this area, we have a hunger situation,” he told IRIN. “We need the government to move quickly, and not just [give food] to a few people, but the entire village.”
|We have a hunger situation. We need the government to move quickly, and not just [give food] to a few people, but the entire village|
Chiuisiwa acknowledged that there were households in several districts, particularly Chikhwawa and its neighbouring district of Nsanje, which had not harvested anything, but that the numbers were unknown until MVAC carried out a planned rapid assessment this month. “We need that assessment to form the basis of planning for interventions,” he said.
This is the third consecutive year that this drought-prone region has experienced insufficient rains, although Lyford said that in previous years they had managed to harvest a little. Stephano Mbande said villagers had long ago sold off assets such as livestock and now mainly relied on occasional `ganyu’ (casual labour) in other people’s fields and on the plantations owned by Illovo Sugar, 20km away.
“They have to walk there and back and they get 108 kwacha [65 US cents] a day for weeding,” he said. “There’s nothing else to do. Only the youth want to go to Blantyre (Malawi’s nearby commercial capital). Most don’t get jobs and they come back.”
Diverted river hurts villagers
Until a few years ago, villagers did not have to depend on unpredictable rains to reap a decent harvest. They planted rice, maize, bananas, potatoes and cassava in the flat, swampy land near the River Shire and grew enough to eat and sell.
“When the rains were bad, we could depend on the river to provide year round,” said Modesta Dan, a 64-year-old resident of the village.
But in 2009, Illovo diverted the river to irrigate its sugar cane fields and the previously swampy land dried up. “Now we can only cultivate there when it rains,” said Dan.
Mbande said there had been no consultation with residents from the 30 villages that relied on the swampy land near the river before Illovo rechannelled the water. “Most people were using that water to farm,” he said. “It’s destroyed their livelihoods.”
Several studies have identified Malawi as one of the countries most susceptible to recurring droughts and flooding caused by climate change, but Chiuisiwa said there was a need for more studies before the government could design more sustainable interventions to assist small-scale farmers.
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In the meantime, Mbande said more and more children in his village were becoming malnourished and two had already died. According to staff at the district hospital in nearby Nsanje, 25 children at that facility alone have died from malnutrition since the beginning of the lean season in November.
Sophie Nyongo, a senior health surveillance assistant at the hospital’s Nutrition Rehabilitation Unit (NRU), said this year was worse than last year, but figures supplied to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) by the government suggest that admissions to NRUs in Nsanje and Chikhwawa are at similar levels as during the same period last year.
Lyford’s youngest child, a three-year-old boy, appears listless and Lyford says he is often sick. When there is no food at home, the older children skip school so they can help their mother weed other people’s fields in return for a basinful of maize.
“We ate twice a day when we got the government food,” said Lyford, “but now we eat once a day, just `nsima’ [maize-meal porridge] and wild vegetables.”