A small river in rural Phalombe is bringing smiles on the faces that, not long ago, were heavily disfigured by floods—raging effects of climate change.
Matiti River had always been within their community. It was, just like trees around, part of their natural inheritance.
Besides being a body they could bathe, wash clothes and, sometimes, draw water from, none in the village envisioned that one day they would turn to it with empty bellies—begging it to help produce food for them.
After all, with rains, though erratic and unpredictable over the years, they still received enough to help them produce their food. They were living in comfort.
But not until March this year.
“As a maize farmer, I planted by early rains of December. Every year I harvest, at least, 40 bags. I can tell you I have never complained of being without food at my house,” says Dyton Mateyu from Makwinja Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chiwalo in the district.
Then hell broke loose.
“Between January 9 and 15 this year, we saw unrelenting rains pouring from the skies without a sense of abandon. We saw paths and roads and dry streams swelling into vast rivers that flooded our villages and turned them into a sea of sorrow. This is something I haven’t witnessed since I was born,” says 47-year-old father of three.
Just like thousands sharing his tragedy in the countries’ 15 districts, Mateyu’s garden was smeared with sand, all the crops gone with the raging waters. He did not give up, though. After the rains had simmered he went back to the garden and replanted hoping to take advantage of the warmth of the soil. It did not help. The rains had completely recoiled. The scorching sun ruled, wilting his crop to death.
“I only managed a single bag. This has not happened to me in all these years I have been a farmer. I harvest, in a good year, close to 60 bags. This year is devastating,” he says.
For a breadwinner whose livelihood solely depended on agriculture, coming to reality with the befallen tragedy sent Mateyu and fellow village folks into soul-searching. They had—apart from engaging in various piece works to find money to fend for their families—to find somewhere to grow some maize, their staple. They felt that solely relying on buying was not sustainable. The answer was irrigation.
By then, Mateyu and 30 other villagers were already doing small-scale irrigation along Matiti River. However, it was completely small-scale; in fact, they only cultivated vegetables. They used water cans and could hardly imagine if they could exploit the banks of the river for other crops. They were safe in the comforts of rain-fed food production to look for other alternatives.
“But the tragedy this year taught us to rethink how we had been using this river. We thought of exploring how best we could use the perennial river and its fertile banks to grow some crops which would keep us afloat until the next growing season,” he says.
Indeed, where there is a will there is a way.
As locals began to mobilise themselves in how they could benefit from Matiti River’s perennial blessing, the Catholic Development Commission (Cadecom), with funding from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), was already in the area since October last year implementing a six month project, titled Safe III, with an overriding aim of helping locals to recover from effects of natural disasters.
Through the project, locals such as Mateyu and 50 others were trained in how they could practice irrigation and cultivate crops like maize as they wait for the next growing, says Yusuf Nkungula, Cadecom national project coordinator.
Not only that, he adds.
“After training, we helped them with treadle pumps and starter-up input like early maturing seeds and fertiliser,” he says.
Thirty-seven years old Dorothy Kansungwi, a divorced mother of three, is one of 150 households in Phalombe District who are benefiting from Cadecom’s gesture.
When The Nation visited her at her maize farm along Matiti River, she had her last born child, Elufe, on her back pushing the treadle pump while her niece directed the water into her maize beds.
“I have great hope,” she says, adding: “It is an early maturing crop so, in a few months, I will have something for my children.”
All along, she adds, we have been making serious mistakes born out of ignorance.
“We live in an area where flooding and its opposite, droughts, are frequent. In fact, when people ask us what is our major problem here is when rains recede, we say: water.
“Now I know we have been fooling ourselves. This river has always been with us, beaming with high levels water all year around. We could not use to the best of its capacity. The challenge is not that we do not have water. But we did not have the simple technology that is efficient, not labour intensive—one that can water our gardens,” she says.
Nkungula agrees with her.
“When we talk about irrigation, we should not always look at large scale schemes with complicated machines on large water bodies. With treadle pumps, pumping water in small but perennial rivers like Matiti, we can help many small-scale farmers to produce more for themselves than relying on providing them with relief items. Through this, they can easily recover from effects of floods and also hone skills. What we need is to scale up our initiatives of supporting local communities to define their destiny,” he says.