Malawi is one of the southern African countries hardest hit by a drought that has disrupted food production and affected water supplies. The government declared a state of disaster in May. Today, an estimated 6.5 million people, in a country of nearly 17 million, face food insecurity. Smart Namagonya is the National Director of SOS Malawi. In this interview, he talks about the effects of the drought and what is needed to help vulnerable children and families in the country. Three of the four communities where SOS Malawi has programmes – Blantyre, Lilongwe and Ngabu – are in the Central and Southern regions that are the worst affected by drought.
How is the situation affecting SOS families and those who benefit from your programmes?
All SOS families still have food because they can afford to buy supplies using the food allowance provided by our organisation. But even with money available, they might start facing some challenges by January due to the scarcity of commodities on the market. At least 60% of families we help through livelihood, nutrition and other support programmes have already run out of food. The situation will likely be at a critical stage by November, when at least 90 percent of these families may be without food because of commodity shortages. At least 80 percent of the families we are currently working with joined our strengthening programme before a different disaster, the severe flooding of 2014 and 2015. The situation is now unbearable for these vulnerable families because of a harsh economic environment characterised by high inflation. High prices reduce the purchasing power of families who already struggle with meagre income earned through piecework. There are also early signs of worsening malnutrition. People with greater nutritional needs remain most at risk, including children, breast-feeding
mothers, the elderly and those living with tuberculosis and/or HIV and Aids. People living with HIV and Aids and other diseases also face challenges related to their drug regime adherence due to insufficient nutrition.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation forecasts that the effects of the drought will peak in early 2017. How are the SOS families preparing for potentially lean months ahead?
Many families we help are struggling to cope. The majority of these families are on the periphery of urban areas with limited or no access to farmland. Some are taking out loans to buy food. Another problem we are seeing is that parents are beginning to spend much of their time away from home as they try to earn income so they can buy food and non-food items. The burden of caring for younger children is now being left to older siblings, and this interrupts their education. Some of the families must sell household assets, or reduce their expenditures on health care and education, in order to afford food.
What can be done to protect vulnerable families from things like drought and flooding?
We are promoting alternative sources of income and ways to support livelihoods. These efforts include setting up village savings and loan groups as well as developing vocational skills and livestock production. We also plan to promote drought tolerant crops like cassava and sorghum for those families with land. Implementation might commence in 2017, subject to the availability of funding. There is also a need to strengthen government systems on disaster preparedness and management so communities can improve their capacity to advocate for more social support and emergency response programmes.
What were the key achievements of the SOS flood emergency response in 2015?
In total we were able to help at least 620 adults and more than 2 500 children. Most of the affected families are now participating in our programmes to improve their living conditions, health and nutrition. Most of the affected children who returned to school have shown progress in their studies. We have also worked to strengthen community-based support for children who have lost or are at risk of losing parental care during emergencies. In addition, community leaders have been trained on disaster preparedness and management and civil protection committees were formed.