This rainy season, different parts of our country have been experiencing various forms of natural disasters such as stormy rains, strong winds and floods. To environmentalists, these are extreme climatic events, evidence of climate change in Malawi. Nevertheless, the issue is debatable.
These extreme climatic events have resulted into loss of infrastructure such as houses, bridges and roads, loss of agricultural products such as crops and livestock which has also led to food insecurity and loss of human life.
On the other hand, flooding is a source of income to peddlers who take people on canoe across Shire River from Bangula to Mlolo. The Office of the President and Cabinet, through the Department of Disaster Management Affairs, confirmed that 18 districts and at least 12 543 households have been affected by various kinds of natural disasters since the onset of the rainy season.
In Nsanje alone, floods left 5 000 people helpless in Traditional Authority Mlolo and according to recent report by United Nations Children Fund 53 000 people have been affected by recent floods in Southern Region.
Natural disasters such as these, especially floods, are not new in Malawi. Millions of kwachas are spent on emergencies that could have been avoided. What lessons does the Malawi Government, through Office of President and Cabinet, get from this experience? What have non-governmental organisations (NGOs) learnt? Can something be done to avoid a situation like this? Were the communities or villages aware of the pending floods? Does indigenous knowledge (IK) have a role?
The bad experiences that Malawi has gone through call for the need to validate, document and promote IK. Scholars have defined IK as the local knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. IK contrasts with the scientific knowledge system generated by universities, research institutions and private firms. It is the basis for local decision-making in agriculture, health care, food preparation, natural resource management and a host of other activities in rural communities.
In Malawi, IK has been there but has gone unnoticed. IK work has been done in various areas such as crops, forestry and agro-forestry technologies, soils, medicinal plants and fisheries. In all the studies which have been conducted, there is little recognition of pool of knowledge in people; hence, the findings have been partially documented and have not been fully utilized.
IK has a greater role to play in the prediction of floods. Traditional knowledge about how local populations have coped with previous floods has the potential of providing important guide for addressing current and future climatic events or natural disasters.
The indigenous knowledge on disaster prediction and early warning is based on keen observation of the behaviour of animals, birds, insects, vegetation, trees, clouds and celestial bodies.
Studies in Lower Shire have shown that the height of the nests of the Natchengwa bird, scientifically known as Ploceus species, is used to predict floods. When floods are likely to occur the nesting of the Natchengwa is very high up the trees next to the river and when floods are unlikely to occur the nests are in the lower part of a tree.
The aquatic animals moving upland also foretell the flood occurrence. For example, hippos come out of rivers and move into villages. Scientifically, hippos are well-adapted to aquatic life, with small ears, eyes and nostrils set at the top of the head. As such, their senses are so keen that even submerged in water, the hippo is alert to its surroundings. Hence, farmers and communities start preparing for the floods – thus transhumance.
All these measures enabled the indigenous communities to live with climatic hazards with little or no support from the outside world.
It is with my best knowledge that if the government of Malawi, NGOs and other stakeholders can join hands in validating, documenting and promoting the utilisation of the IK in climate change adaptation and mitigation, particularly by improving early warning signals, much resources can be saved for other development purposes.
—The author is a student at University of Malawi, Chancellor College, studying for a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science.