/ 15 April 2024

Climate crisis pushes Malawi food farmers into starvation

General Views Of Malawi
BLANTYRE, MALAWI - JANUARY 18: An aerial view of landslide and damage caused by flash floods from Severe Tropical Cyclone Freddy, an exceptionally long-lived, powerful, and deadly tropical cyclone that traversed the southern Indian Ocean for more than five weeks in February and March 2023 hitting the Southern regions of Malawi, on January 18, 2024 in Blantyre, Malawi. (Photo by Contigo/Getty Images)

In Mujiwa village in Mulanje, on Malawi’s southern border with Mozambique, Bigborn Juwawo’s maize field is littered with rocks dropped by Cyclone Freddy last year. 

Dry patches of sandy soil dominate the rest of the field. The April harvests from Juwawo’s

three fields used to be enough to feed his family for a year. Now, they barely get by.

“With six children to care for, life is very hard,” the farmer said. “This year, things are even worse because the dry spells go on and on. After the cyclone, we got some supplies donated, but now it’s every person for themselves.”

Such hardship now affects nearly two million Malawian farmers, said Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, who declared a state of disaster for the fourth time in as many years.

The latest devastation is largely because of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has cast dry spells over some countries while raining unusually heavy torrents in others. 

Chakwera said 749,000 hectares of maize — more than 44% of the national crop area — have been damaged by the effects of El Niño.

“This situation is devastating,” Chakwera said. “It would have been catastrophic even if this were the first disaster in recent years. Unfortunately, this marks the fourth time in four years that I have declared a state of disaster.”

The president has appealed for $200 million in food aid for the affected people in 23 of the country’s 28 districts.

A deadly combination of raging cyclones made stronger by climate change local environmental devastation driven by deforestation has driven Malawi to the verge of famine. As much as 40% of Malawi’s population is facing hunger, according to a statement from the World Food Programme released last week to echo the president’s appeal.

Cyclone Freddy in March 2023 was the worst in Malawi’s recorded history.

Its heavy rains caused multiple floods and landslides in the south of the country, killing 679 people, and 537 people are missing. At least 2,186 were injured and more than 659,278 were displaced. 

A post-disaster assessment found that it wiped $36 million from Malawi’s economy in production losses. Forty-five percent of that loss was from crops devastated by floods — 60,000 hectares, equivalent to 27% of the planted acreage that year, were flooded.

But even before that disaster, 20% of Malawians were expected to struggle with food. 

Freddy came after Storm Ana and Cyclone Gombe in 2022, which destroyed sanitation infrastructure, setting off one of Malawi’s worst cholera outbreaks.

As national maize stocks ran low because farmers were producing much less, the country had to import staples such as maize, rice, soya beans, cowpeas and groundnuts.

But import costs and scarcity have driven maize prices to nearly double in just one year. Today’s prices are triple the five-year average.

Unable to produce food on their farm or afford food from the shops, and bereft of aid, farmers like Juwawo face an unyielding future of endless starvation.

This article first appeared in The Continent , the pan-African weekly  newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian . It’s designed to be read and  shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here