The impact of El Niño on the Lower Shire Valley, Malawi – A preliminary observation By Jane Maher


At present, I am in Malawi carrying out data collection for my PhD. The focus of this research trip is to examine the impacts of gender mainstreaming in climate change adaptation policy and finance for adaptation at local level in Malawi. Malawi (figure 1) was chosen as a suitable case study site for this research because it is highly vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change. In addition, previous research has indicated high levels of climate finance for adaptation flowing to the country. Data collection is focused on two of the most disaster-prone districts: Chikwawa and Nsanje, both in the Lower Shire Valley (figure 1). At present, Malawi is in a ‘state of national disaster’ declared by President Arthur Peter Mutharika on the 12th April 2016. The country is experiencing extreme food insecurity, approximately 33% below the five year average. This is as a result of persistent dry spells, unpredictable rainfall and flooding.

Figure 1: map of Malawi and Lower Shire ValleyMalawi

El Niño, warming of the sea surface temperature, occurs every two to seven years resulting in fluctuations of the Earth’s climate system and causes widespread impacts in the agricultural, health and livestock sectors to name but a few. This year’s El Niño, described as a “super” El Niño, is the worst in 15 years. However, the phenomenon fluctuates naturally and linking this “super” El Niño directly to climate change is the subject of some debate.

Nonetheless, the effect of El Niño on the Lower Shire Valley is vast and significantly impacting on people within Chikwawa and Nsanje, the majority of whom rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods.  As a result, the phenomenon will greatly impact and alter the data collected on this fieldtrip. Some initial observations will be presented here.

The situation in the Lower Shire Valley is described by many as a double tragedy. This current period of persistent dry spells has exacerbated the already fragile food security situation in the region. Crop production last season was heavily disrupted after extensive flooding in January 2015. In addition to heightened food insecurity, the 2014/2015 flooding resulted in thousands being internally displaced after homes and entire villages were washed away.

Initial Observations:

Many farmers are reporting that they have not been able to yield any harvest. This is directly as a result of prolonged dry spells and late rains. One key informant from a local organisation stated that he had only recorded 11 days rain throughout the wet season in Chikwawa this year. On top of poor rainfall, the variety of crops available for farmers was restricted. The usage of drought-resistant crops and early-maturing varieties was limited and as a result many crops experienced drying without reaching full size. Finally, those who have access to irrigation schemes noted that even this was insufficient for crops as the rivers on which they rely on for irrigation have run dry.

Food shortages are commonplace, with many households relying on food aid distribution by organisations such as the World Food Progrmmae, GOAL, World Vision and CARE Malawi. A regular coping mechanism that was often discussed was the sharing of distributed food aid among households in the village. This coping mechanism means that the most vulnerable families, such as the elderly, the disabled and ill, female-headed or child-headed, receive a 50 kg bag of maize, intended for the consumption by that household only. However, the targeted households often share the maize with at least two other households, which perpetuates the cycle of vulnerability and insecurity.

Furthermore, from focus group discussions it is apparent that eating habits have changed throughout Chikwawa and Nsanje participants reported a reduction in food intake and consuming only one meal a day. In addition to reducing food consumption, it was noted that there are changes in the food that is being consumed. One particular observation was the increase consumption of “Nyika” (figure 2), which are rhizomes from the water lily plant (Nymphaea petersiana).  Historically, “Nyika” has been eaten in the southern region of Malawi during times of food shortage but this year the dependency on it as a food source had greatly increased. This has resulted in digestive problems such as diarrhoea when eaten in large amounts. Furthermore, the availability of “Nyika” throughout marketplaces is also a new trend seen this year. When discussing this during focus groups, participants stated that finding “Nyika” is becoming more dangerous and difficult as dependency on it rises in the region, some noted that they have to walk up to 10km to find it.

Figure 2: Nyika rhizome and preparation method.



As a result of these food shortages, people are reporting increased rates of poverty, as their livelihoods depend almost entirely on agriculture. Through focus group discussions it has been acknowledged that children are missing long periods from school for a number of reasons; to help adults search for food; due to hunger; or because parents cannot afford items such as school uniforms, school books or pens.

Finally, in a means to diversify livelihoods people and reduce poverty are adopting negative practices such as deforestation activities to make charcoal or selling firewood. Further, there has been a noted increase in prostitution, resulting in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially seen in areas closer to a trading centre or marketplace, and a surge in theft and crimes within community.

Over the next month I will continue to collect data by means of focus groups and surveys within Chikwawa and Nsanje, along with carrying out key informant interviews at district and national level.


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