Overcoming Hardship

Photo by PCI Staff

Breaking the Cycle of Devastation in Malawi

By Maureen Simpson and Tanner Roark

Farmers in Malawi have long battled the devastating impact that drought, floods and other climate-related disasters have on their land.

Every year, erratic rainfall, extended dry seasons and pest infestations rob them of consistent food and income security. Homes are destroyed, water runs dry, crops are wiped out, trees disappear and hunger takes hold - over and over and over again.

Burnnet Khulumbo's job is to convince people this cycle can end.

"The most challenging part of what I do is to make people understand that you can prepare for disasters and help prevent them," said Khulumbo, a Disaster Risk Management Advisor for PCI Malawi. "We invest in building the capacity of vulnerable communities, providing them with skills and training to help change their mindset."

Through the Njira project, funded by USAID's Office of Food for Peace, PCI has been working to improve food security among 63,400 vulnerable households in southern Malawi's Balaka and Machinga districts. Engaging communities in disaster risk reduction activities and improving their ability to respond to shocks and stresses is one component of the project.

"Disasters are happening because of climate change, yes, but they are being exacerbated by environmental degradation," Khulumbo said. "Watershed management comes in to address these problems."

To protect and improve how natural resources are used and conserved in these vulnerable areas, the Njira project introduces communities to a mix of watershed treatments or interventions that help harvest water, minimize runoff, retain soil moisture, irrigate fields and restore lands. Village committees selected by community members decide what interventions they want to implement with technical support from PCI.

"We don't just bring in interventions that we believe will work, but we include local knowledge from the community's perspective," Khulumbo said. "We leave the work to actually be owned and led by them."

In Kadzuwa village, community members had been dealing with severe flooding from the Chilanga River for more than two decades. When the river overflowed, farmers suffered huge losses in crops and livestock, and some villagers even lost their homes. Sanitary facilities were often destroyed as well, putting the community at a higher risk for diseases like cholera.

"Our houses are safe, our livestock are safe, our crops are safe, and we are now able to have food up to January after harvesting."
- Yama Widimu, VCPC member

To combat these issues, PCI initiated a riverbank stabilization project. A total of 150 community members received training and worked over a period of 60 days to secure the Chilanga River. Together, they removed silt from the riverbed, filled empty food distribution bags with the unwanted silt and strategically placed the bags in targeted areas to structurally improve the riverbanks and keep the river on its intended course.

As a result, Kadzuwa village experienced its first year without flooding in 22 years and farmers were finally able to harvest enough food to support their families. For example, 25 acres of farmland that were previously unusable for cultivation collectively raised the maize harvest by 33,000 pounds (a value of US $2,482).

"It has not happened in the past where a household could harvest more than one bag of maize from this land, but now we have managed to harvest 15 bags," said Wisiki Kalembo, one of the local farmers.

Aside from boosts in crop production, community members are seeing other benefits from watershed interventions, including increased protection for their homes and livestock and a better sense of preparedness for extreme climate events.

"Our houses are safe, our livestock are safe, our crops are safe, and we are now able to have food up to January after harvesting," said Yama Widimu, who serves on a Village Civil Protection Committee (VCPC).

According to Khulumbo, VCPCs help with disaster response at the local level but often lack the capacity or resources to function effectively.

"In the past, what used to happen was that when a disaster would strike, people looked to the government to bring in support in the form of relief items like food," he said. "Now, because lands have improved and agriculture has improved, VCPCs can mobilize resources and stock food in readiness for the next disaster. They can go and support their fellow community members to survive difficult moments."

Shepherd Jere, who works for Machinga District's Department of Disaster Management Affairs, said the Njira project has transformed the resilience and self-sufficiency of communities in a way that will yield positive results for years to come.

"Because of what communities have learned from the Njira project, many lives have been saved," Jere said. "Assets that mitigate the impact of disasters and support agricultural production have been created in 45 communities and natural resources have been managed. As a district, we are confident that communities will be able to sustain what has been created."

2018 By The Numbers