Malawi is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and this has generally affected agriculture production, the backbone of the country’s economy and people’s livelihoods.
The impacts of climate change in Malawi are being manifested in various ways but the familiar phenomena are intense rainfall, changing rainfall patterns, floods, droughts and prolonged dry spells.
Small-scale food producers are already being impacted by climate change and such is the situation in Karonga, Chikhwawa, Nsanje and Mzimba districts.
At the moment, Karonga is facing the worst effects of dry spells this farming season. Although dry spells are not new occurrence in the country, the Karonga dry spells could result in drastic reduced crop production in the district.
Women and children are likely to be the worst hit and this will have a bearing on their own nutrition levels and consequently their health.
The Famine Early Warning System (Fewsnet) in March reported that a remote sensing data using the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) as an indicator of robustness of vegetation (also known as the greenness index), showed a decrease in crop greenness between January and February and continued below average levels.
Fewsnet further reported that the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS) estimated that about 14 000 hectares of total maize cropped area for 2013/14 season was under severe moisture stress in Karonga with diminishing chances of possible recovery.
That is a cause for worry for many women farmers who talked to the Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet) on a fact finding mission in the district in March with support from Institute of Development Studies (IDS).
The women fear that yields will be seriously reduced in the worst affected areas by the dry spells because the maize crop was at the critical flowering stage.
However, the extent of the impact of the dry spells will be fully understood once a joint assessment involving Fewsnet, World Food Programme (WFP), MoAFS and the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DoCCMS) is released.
Women farmers in Karonga grow maize, bananas, rice, cassava and groundnuts but the persistent dry spells have had a knockdown effect on all the crops.
“The crops need a miracle to survive. This year’s dry spells could be described as the worst in as many farming seasons. The crops have been starved of water at the most critical time when it was flowering,” said Agness Namandi of Mwasamba, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kyungu in the district.
Dry spells and the late onset of rains are not uncommon in the district. These are the most experienced climatic hazards which have a direct bearing on crops productivity such as maize, rice and bananas—the areas staple foods.
“Inadequate rainfall will result into low yields hence shortage of food and this has greatly affected the nutritional status of the households,” said Tamala Ngwira, a local from the village.
The women also revealed that due to the shortage of food they resort to alternative foods which in most cases are not nutritious to feed the household. This results in stunted growth and malnutrition especially in children.
In Mzuzu, Chikhwawa and Nsanje women who talked to Cisanet cited outbreaks of waterborne diseases especially when the areas flood due to intense rainfall, another extreme weather event in the districts.
For example, in Nsanje and Chikwawa women explained that when they experience floods, there is always an outbreak of cholera which mostly affects the children and leaves them sick.
“Instead of going to the fields, women spend time taking care of those affected by the diseases and the crops are unattended to. This is a serious problem especially on the female headed households,” explained Beatrice Cassim.
Women are also the health care providers and caregivers in their families, she added.
Women in Mzuzu also raised concerns that when there are issues of climate change resulting into shortage of food, they are the ones who go out, walking long distances to fend for their families.
“This result in children missing out meals because we sometimes spend the whole day out searching for food,” said Agnes Chizewe.
Some women complained that their husbands run away from the home in the guise of searching for food but never show up again.
“This leaves the women with a huge task to search for food, and take care of the sick. We end up not providing adequately for the family. Incidents of rape have also been reported as women travel long distances to look for food.
“Some women also take risky routes, engaging in prostitution, to fend for the families such as resorting to ways that are harmful as long as they put food on the table. They sell their bodies for food,” claimed Dorothy Nachali.
From the interaction Cisanet had, it was clearly revealed that climate change has a bearing on nutrition, especially from the perspective of women.
But as the dry spell takes its toll on women in the country especially in Karonga, Nsanje, Chikhwawa and Mzuzu, the women are suggesting that government should help them adapt by introducing more efficient irrigation for women farmers.
The initiative has already started but it is a small-scale, they said.
The women in the districts Cisanet conducted interviews suggested that start-up capital would help to kick-start businesses to complement their toil in the fields, currently facing uncertainty due to climatic hazards.
The women also proposed awareness training on what to do when such climatic issues occur to prepare them for such times.
Keeping of livestock also emerged as a key to adaptation to women as an alternative source of income and food in cases where all the crops have been affected by climate change hazards.
The fact finding missions in Karonga, Mzuzu, Chikhwawa and Nsanje revealed the linkages between climate change and nutrition but it was clear that women are not adequately involved in policy interventions to address the impact of climate change on women’s livelihoods.
Women have sugagested that they should be involved in the design of policies and the implementation of solutions so that there is long-term ownership of potential solutions.