Friday, April 20, 2007

Malawi: Case study of a country at risk from climate change

Malawi is a medium-sized, landlocked country in Southern Africa. It's not the kind of place where the impact of climate change will take place in the form of telegenic catastrophes of massive storms or huge floods. Rather, climate change is steadily forcing incremental changes that the local social, economic, and political systems largely lack the capacity to adapt to, as this report based on a study by Action Aid International makes clear:

Farmers are increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change on agriculture and food security. "Food availability has been an issue over the years since the disasters began. Much as we have experienced floods in those days, the impact was somehow not as severe. As time went by, there has been a drop in crop production due to frequent flooding and droughts," said a farmer in Salima district.

Malawi's experiences are often traced back to the 1991/92 drought in southern Africa, which affected over six million people. Since then, the report noted, the severity of disasters has escalated.

In other words, the headline events which climate change are far less likely to be weather-related than they are to be stories about hunger, about social strife, about unemployment, about rising death rates from HIV (Malawi's adult HIV rate is estimated at 14%), and so on. Climate change risks tipping these stressed systems into full-blown collapse. The report lays bare how the different stressed subsystems impacted by climate change--natural, political, social, and economic--all interact to create multiple negative feedback loops:

There has also been a noticeable increase in diseases, such as malaria, cholera and dysentery, associated with changes in rainfall patterns, creating health challenges that are particularly affecting women farmers. "We now travel longer distances to fetch water, and spend most of the time in health centres instead of working in our fields," the report quoted a female farmer as saying....

Poor land use and deforestation are also serious concerns among people in Salima and Nsanje. Farmers are aware that these activities result in more floods and droughts, but are not empowered to intervene. Many pointed fingers at the role of tobacco estates in felling trees in their neighbourhood....

The increasing food insecurity caused by climate change has also limited the number of casual jobs available on commercial farms. In the past, nearby small-scale sugar and tea plantations were sources of employment for many people in Nsanje. However, farmers say that flood-induced migration means that there are now many more people seeking work on the plantations than there are jobs available.

Some mitigation plans are being considered, but it's probably not nearly enough:

The Malawians are considering enhancing food security by developing community-based storage systems for seed and food, and enhancing the resilience of food production systems to erratic rainfall by promoting the sustainable production of maize and vegetables in wetlands and catchment areas.

However, Action Aid said the implementation of NAPA faced capacity constraints at district level, and a lack of coordination among sectors. "In addressing adaptation challenges, it is imperative that a multisectoral approach is taken, beginning at the community level with the smallholder farmers who are directly affected by climate change. These farmers need skills, knowledge and access to credit for the addressing short- and long-term needs of diversifying from maize into other crops."

Aid agencies and the Malawian government have been considering providing drought insurance to smallholder farmers. The Commodity Risk Management Group (CRMG) of the World Bank developed an objective indicator that could be used as a proxy measure of the exposure of Malawi's maize production to drought, but it was poorly linked to crop yields, according to the FAO, which was now working on the idea.

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