Prolonged dry spells followed by poor harvests in Malawi’s maize-growing central and southern regions have created widespread food shortages, yet it has taken months to fully determine the extent of the crisis, and it may take several more to fund and implement a comprehensive response.
Estimates at the beginning of 2012 put the number of Malawians facing food shortages at about 202,000 in 10 districts, prompting the government to impose a ban on maize exports; the figure was later revised to include an additional 70,000. But a more detailed assessment by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) released in July found that 1.63 million people - 11 percent of the total population - might not have enough food to meet their basic needs over the next three to eight months. They are concentrated in 15 districts, all in Malawi’s central and southern regions, an area perennially plagued by unpredictable rains and poor harvests.
Part of the reason behind the steep increase in numbers was the move by incoming President Joyce Banda in May to devalue the local currency by nearly 50 percent. It was an effort to boost exports and woo back international donors that had abandoned the country during the final year of former President Bingu wa Mutharika’s increasingly autocratic rule.
The devaluation, widely viewed as “a necessary evil”, triggered substantial increases in the prices of many basic goods, including maize. For many rural households in drought-hit districts, the high maize prices have made it difficult or impossible to supplement poor harvests.
“I do not know what to do now; our harvest was very bad,” said Nancy Kumwenda from Ntcheu, one of the districts in central Malawi affected by the food shortage. “We got less than a bag of maize from our land. The whole crop just withered away.”
Kumwenda’s eight children, plus three children of relatives in her care, depend solely on her for their school fees, clothing and food.
|We got less than a bag of maize from our land. The whole crop just withered away|
Meanwhile, K. Kamwendo, 85, from the village of Domasi in southern Zomba District, is unsure how he is going to survive the year on two small bags of maize, the only food in the house. Because of his advanced age, Kamwendo does not till the land but buys what he can and relies on his neighbours to donate some maize when they have a good crop. This year, his neighbours have little to spare for him.
Nearly all of the households IRIN visited in Balaka, Ntcheu, Zomba, Chiradzulu, Chikwawa and Nsanje districts told similar stories. Only farmers cultivating along the Shire River in Nsanje managed to produce sufficient harvests.
Anderson Vishalona, senior group village headman in the southern Chikwawa district, estimated that six out of 10 people in Mwana wa Njovu, a village of over 3,000, were already going hungry. “The rest do not have enough food to last them until the end of the year. The situation is very bad,” he said.
Poor urban households have also been affected. “The price of maize has more than doubled,” said Blessings Banda, who lives in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital. Like most city residents, Banda does not grow his own maize. “It is no longer possible to feed my family the way I used to before. I am really worried.”
The extent to which urban populations will need food assistance will become clearer later this month when the government and humanitarian agencies release their findings from an urban food security assessment.
Following the July MVAC findings, the Malawi government released a detailed response plan. It appeals for international support to fund interventions in the food, agriculture, education and health sectors, at a cost of US$89.3 million. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), only $18 million has so far been raised to cover the immediate need for food assistance.
None of the households that IRIN interviewed had yet received any food aid, but according to World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson Pamela Kuwali, food distributions began on 1 August in three districts and will reach 715,000 people in 10 districts by October. The Malawi government has contributed 25,000 metric tons of maize from the country’s Strategic Grain Reserve, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has donated $4.7 million to cover the costs of transporting and distributing food during the first three months of the relief operation, and US Agency for International Development (USAID) has given nearly $8 million.
In a statement released in July, WFP Country Director Abdoulaye Diop confirmed the seriousness of the situation. “Our field staff has observed that households in parts of the country have harvested almost nothing,” he said. “Our first priority will be to make sure that vulnerable people have enough food to sustain themselves through this lean season. At the same time, we must invest in more long-term solutions to build resilience and break the cycle of hunger.”
Building long-term solutions to hunger is a mammoth task. Most Malawians depend on rain-fed agriculture to grow maize despite increasingly unpredictable rainfall, especially in the southern parts of the country where districts such as Chikwawa, Zomba and Nsanje are experiencing their fourth consecutive year of dry weather followed by poor harvests. Analysts say that the country’s dependence on maize and a lack of irrigation puts Malawians at perennial risk of food shortages when rains fail.
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“The problem with maize is that there is always either an oversupply or an undersupply in Malawi. When there is an oversupply, everybody has the crop and the prices go down drastically. Farmers are unable to get rid of excess crop, and that leads to heavy post-harvest losses. When there is undersupply, the prices shoot up, and everybody is scrambling to get maize. But Malawi can easily feed itself if people opted for other [crops] and used irrigation instead of depending on rain,” said Victor Gondwe, who practices small-scale irrigation farming in Ntcheu District.
Instead of relying on expensive fertilizer, he uses compost and animal manure from poultry, rabbits and goats, which also feed his family. He pointed out that maize requires large quantities of rain and fertilizer, and that growing crops such as sorghum, millet, sweet potato and cassava could help address Malawi’s hunger problem.
The government’s food security response plan includes longer-term interventions to build the resilience of rural households to unpredictable weather such as training farmers on more sustainable farming practices, promoting crop diversification and distributing small livestock and treadle pumps for irrigation, but this portion of the plan currently remains unfunded.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions