When floods washed away her maize field, Otumala Watch was shocked, confused and hopeless. She did not know what to do let alone how to manage the gloomy situation she was in.
“It was too much for me and I was helpless,” said Watch, a mother of three from Mpemba Village in Mangochi, who does not know her age but appears to be in her 50s.
“Floods came just like that and washed away everything, all the maize gone. It was a bad experience of my life,” explained Watch about the tragedy.
In January 2013, government received reports of flooding from Mangochi, Phalombe and Nsanje. Due to severity of the floods, government in collaboration with the United Nations (UN) in Malawi constituted an inter-agency assessment team to assess the impact of the floods in the three reported districts, all of them in the Southern Region of Malawi.
Watch’s household was among 6 475 households affected by the floods—with over 33 000 people displaced from their homes, according to a report by the assessment team and Situation Report No.5 (as of February 8, 2013) by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—Regional Office for Southern Africa (Unocha-Rosa).
Additionally, livestock were washed away and schools were disturbed as displaced people occupied school blocks for shelter, affecting thousands of children.
About 7 439.4 hectares of different types of crops including maize, tobacco, legumes and cotton were washed away, covered by sand or immersed by water.
The grim situation was further exacerbated by prolonged dry spells that hit 16 districts in Malawi in the 2012/2013 crop season – with some of the districts being hit three years in a row – resulting in 1.9 million people without food, according to the 2013 Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) report.
However, through a six-month Emergency Input Support to Populations Affected by Floods in Nsanje, Phalombe and Mangochi districts of the Southern Region of Malawi” project, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) responded to the disaster by supporting 2 700 farmers—translating into an indirect population of 14,850 people—to receive 3kg of early maturing SC 403 maize seed, 1kg pigeon pea, 1kg of cow peas, 2kgs of Phaseolus bean, 15kg of 23:21:0 + 4S basal dressing fertiliser and 20kg of Urea top dressing fertiliser.
Before receiving the inputs, all beneficiaries were trained in good agricultural practices for maize and legume production, and appropriate post-harvest handling techniques to make households affected by floods and dry spells recover from extreme climate condition shocks that predisposed them to food insecurity and abject poverty.
FAO, with funding from the UN Humanitarian Fund supported by Department for International Development (DfID) and Flanders International Cooperation Agency (Fica), collaborated with Department of Disaster Management Affairs and Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS) in project design, with MoAFS as the implementing ministry.
During a field monitoring exercise in March 2014 to check crop performance, targeted farmers expressed optimism for high yields.
“Look at this maize, do you think I can worry about hunger now?” Watch asked, pointing at the maize in her garden planted through Sasakawa farming technology of one-seed-per-hole between a distance of 25cm each.
She said when she adopted the technology, her fellow farmers said she was wasting land by not using traditional method of three-seeds-per-hole. But later on, the same farmers began admiring her garden after they saw the quality of maize.
“I don’t see any possibility of hunger in my household. I am a very confident woman now,” she added.
In Nsanje, Austin Forte was equally affected by floods, but now enjoys a good crop too after receiving inputs from the project.
“I will use the harvest for food and not for sale so that I am food secure,” said Forte, 26, a lead farmer who trains 27 farmers in new farming technologies in the district.
His sentiments were echoed in Phalombe where Dorifa Hesten, 38, also received inputs after floods cleared her fields too, leaving her with little or no hope of having a food-secure household.
“It is now clear we will have enough food to eat, especially those of us who were hit by floods,” observed Hesten, a mother of two from Lomoriwa Village, Traditional Authority Nazombe in the district.
“I appeal to other farmers to follow the sasakawa technology we are using through this project for them to produce more,” she added.
In Mangochi, Agathat Thomas, 27, of Khombe Village in Traditional Authority Nankumba is all smiles at the prospects of bumper harvest, including legumes.
“I am hopeful to harvest enough maize and legumes. It will be enough for my family,” said Thomas, a mother of three.
Osmund Chapotoka, district agriculture development officer for Phalombe, said the emergency project had provided timely relief to the designated 900 farmers in the district who became hopeless after floods ravaged their fields.
FAO national project coordinator Samuel Mingu urged farmers in the three targeted districts to use the technologies learnt from the project in all future farming activities, saying with proper application of Sasakawa technology, good agricultural practices and good rains SC 403 maize variety could reach its maximum potential yield of 5 000kg per hectare.
“We supported you so that you have food at household level following the floods. Make sure you share the same knowledge with your fellow farmers,” advised Mingu, describing the crop stand in the fields as impressive.
This type of short-term approach, however, is not a long-term solution for Watch and her peers because in the end, farmers are completely dependent on rainfall, Mingu added.
“A more sustainable use of land and water needs to happen,” he said.
—The author is communications officer for FAO Malawi.