Surviving hunger: Malawi’s new normal

Oxfam Climate Change


As Malawi experiences the worst drought it’s had for 35 years, exacerbated by El Niño, many are suffering from hunger and starvation. Benjamin Phillips, a Humanitarian Worker with Oxfam, shares with us his experience on a recent visit to the country. 

“If you come back in August you probably won’t find us here”, a man I recently met in drought-stricken southern Malawi told me.

What was frightening was that I heard this repeatedly from the many families I met in other parts of the country. Malawi is currently ravaged by Southern Africa’s worst drought in 35 years caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

The reality is grim. Poor harvests for the past two years have left millions of Malawians struggling for food. People are already going hungry, forced to skip meals or sell what they can in order to buy food. Children are either too hungry to go to school or are forced to drop out to look for work to provide food for their families. But the world has yet to respond.

As I walked through the villages and farmland of Balaka district, one of the worst affected areas in southern Malawi, I witnessed firsthand how bad things had got. Crops have withered without enough rain water, rivers are dry and people have had to dig three times as deep to find water.  The reality is grim. Poor harvests for the past two years have left millions of Malawians struggling for food.

Stalks of maize grown at this time of the year are thinner than usual. There has been little or no rain, the soil has dried up and the leaves on some crops are smaller than they should be. It is the subtle tell-tale signs – albeit different from one farm to the other – that reaffirm one collective fear: people are at the brink of catastrophe.

Maize, the country’s staple, is usually easy to produce and can be grown at a large scale. However, El Nino has caused far longer dry spells in some areas, and flooding others, destroying crops and decimating harvests. Maize is one of the most vulnerable crops to drought. The country’s current maize deficit of over 400,000 tonnes reaffirms how the situation has deteriorated since 2015. Climate change is set to make weather like this the new normal for places like Malawi.

In June 2016, the Malawian government announced that 6.5 million people face hunger because of the drought. If we all don’t act together and fast, help will not reach those who desperately need it and we risk losing lives. 

In Balaka, Oxfam has provided drought resistant crops like sweet potato vines, to enable affected families to continue cultivation even in dry conditions. Rose Usi, 48 years old, from Balaka’s Njale village said, “the potatoes have come to my family’s rescue”. She is able to feed her family but also sell the surplus and use the money to buy other basics.

Projects such as these not only give people food, but also build their farming skills, particularly with the inevitable climate changes. Any surplus sold means that families have an alternative source of income and it helps keep local markets going. 

As a result, communities will be more prepared for, and should cope better, in future emergencies.

But funds needed to provide much needed help have been scarce. Oxfam needs £12 million to provide aid to 650,000 people in Malawi until mid-2017. From April to May 2016, Oxfam provided over 200,000 people with money in Mulanje, Lilongwe and Kasungu districts. Money has been a good way to support both people and local markets. In June, Oxfam helped over 29,000 people in Balaka district with sweet potato vines, maize and vegetable seeds and fertilisers. We are currently preparing to support 83,000 more people.

When you see the difficulties that people are going through you want to shout from the rooftops and wake the world to stop this catastrophe from unfolding further. 

Hunger isn’t inevitable. Lives can be saved and livelihoods restored. But everyone including international donors, national governments and humanitarian actors must do their fair share before it’s too late.

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Photo: Farmers describe how first flooding and then drought have destroyed crops. Balaka district, Malawi. Credit: Daud Kayisi/Oxfam

Author: Benjamin Phillips
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.