Widespread drought threatens farmers in Malawi

By Kenny Rae
Stezia Ziyangoyango says she only grew about a third of her normal maize harvest, and now worries about how she will feed her family. Photo: Kenny Rae/Oxfam

Oxfam distributes cash and other assistance to farmers across southern Africa

Kenny Rae is Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator for water, sanitation, and hygiene in Southern Africa.

Stezia Ziyangoyango’s family relies on what they grow on their small farm by the side of a main road in Ntcheu district in southern Malawi. In good times she and her husband could depend on getting 20 bags of maize each year. This was enough to feed their family, now totaling eight, with enough left over to sell to cover household needs. This year, because of the El Niño-induced drought, they harvested only seven bags.

Normally the family eats three meals a day, except for the two months before the next year’s crop (usually harvested in January and February), when they cut back  to two meals.  They’ve already cut back to two meals a day, six months earlier than usual, to make the maize last longer. Ziyangoyango estimates that even with this sacrifice the food will run out in August.  “I do not know how I will feed my children,” she says.  “The few sweet potatoes we grow will not last even one month. We have no money to buy clothes or soap. We have nothing to sell except just a few tools, but the price will be so low, as everyone will be doing the same. And then what would we do at planting time?”

Extensive drought

Throughout Malawi conditions are the same.  Harvests have completely failed, or are much lower than usual. As water sources dry up, women and girls must travel farther to collect water. Other families are resorting to using unsafe surface water as their only option, increasing their vulnerability to water-borne disease, including cholera.

The minister of agriculture has estimated that half the population of 16.7 million will not have sufficient food later this year.  Eighty percent of Malawi’s people depend on small-scale farming for survival, so the crisis led the president to declare a state of national disaster in May. In February, the World Food Programme warned that Malawi could face the worst food crisis in decades. The organization is currently providing humanitarian assistance to almost three million people in Malawi. 

Crisis for region

The maize crop in Malawi has failed for many due to lack of rain. Photo: Kenny Rae/Oxfam

The crisis has affected the whole Southern African region. Neighboring Zimbabwe has also declared a disaster and South Africa, traditionally an exporter of maize to neighboring countries, is itself facing its worst drought in a century and will be a net importer this year.

Oxfam is responding to the impact of El Niño by providing grants to improve access to food, promoting alternatives to growing maize for the winter months, and supporting veterinary services to maintain livestock. It is also improving access to safe water in some of the affected areas by rehabilitating wells and other water sources to reduce the distances that people (primarily women and girls) have to travel for water, and providing treatment chemicals to ensure water is safe.  

Earlier this year a consortium of NGOs, including Oxfam, responded with cash transfers in eight of Malawi’s districts. Oxfam provided cash payments to families in Kasungu, Lilongwe, and Mulanje districts, covering a total of 32,189 households. The payments were provided to a population identified as being highly food insecure with an aim improving access to food and building the resilience of the affected households and communities to future shocks.

Oxfam will continue its response using different approaches in a number of districts. These include cash transfers where markets are functioning, provision of agricultural inputs, and repairing water sources and hygiene promotion in four of the 28 districts in the country.

In addition to dealing with the drought crisis, renewed fighting in neighboring Mozambique has forced over 10,000 people to escape to Malawi. Oxfam has provided relief supplies to these Mozambican refugees including materials for temporary toilets, blankets, household and sanitary supplies, and solar lamps.

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