Struggling to Survive: the Effects of El Niño on Malawi

Wednesday 27 July 2016

We have reached a stage where climate change can no longer be looked at as a fallacy – in Malawi it is evidently taking away people’s livelihoods. Today in Malawi, droughts and floods are more severe and frequent than they used to be.

A study by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) has shown that the climatic phenomenon, El Niño is responsible for putting up to 6.5 million people (39% of the country’s population) at risk of being food insecure during the 2016/17 consumption period. 

An atmospheric change associated with El Nino is reduced rainfall, which is caused by above average sea surface temperatures in the eastern and central tropical Pacific Ocean. These effects are experienced as far as South Eastern Africa, where local communities who are dependent on rain fed agriculture are experiencing vulnerability to drought. Farmers are finding it difficult to cultivate their land without normal rainfall.

Photo Caption: Agnes and her son standing in front of their repaired home [Photo taken by Jonas Gratzer/Freelance Photographer]

Agnes, a 26-year-old mother of six from Zomba district is struggling to put food on her table. She and her husband are subsistence farmers. They would usually grow enough on their family field to feed themselves – but nowadays they are experiencing very low yields.

“When the rains were good, we used to harvest an average of twelve bags of maize – this year, we only harvested three,” she said.

As supplementary income – Agnes and her husband also do labour for cash, a pratice locally known as ganyu. The couple earns around 800 Malawi Kwacha (equivalent to $1.20) in total for a day's work. However, with less crops being harvested, there is less work available.


Photo Caption: Agnes looking at withered maize from her field [Photo taken by Jonas Gratzer/Freelance Photographer]

“Over the past five years we have not had crops like in the distant past – we can no longer feed our families,” bemoaned Agnes.

To the untrained eye, the corn on Agnes’ field during the growing period appeared to be fresh and green. On closer inspection however, the peaks, where there should have been mature corn – were dry and damaged. This was a result of the severe dry spells and erratic rains that Agnes – and so many people around Malawi experienced.

“If drought is not problematic enough, when the rain finally did come, it poured fiercely,” added Agnes, as she reflected on the past harvest period. A year ago, the region was hit by torrential rains that created floods and destroyed many homes. Her family’s hut that is barely 10 square meters was ruined by the floods. 

Her family is one of many households in the village who received food supplements from Save the Children earlier this year through a 2015/16 MVAC Response in collaboration with WFP and the Government of Malawi. Agnes’ household received a 50kg bag of maize, 6kg’s of peas, 6kg’s of corn soya blend and 2 liters of cooking oil.

“This support will help keep us alive for a while,” said Agnes at the time she received her supplies. “Without help from Save the Children, we would not have had enough food to feed the children – and they would have been badly malnourished,” she added.

Agnes looks toward the remainder of the year with pessimism. With little to no food at times, she is perplexed by how she’ll feed her family.

There was a time she was able to plan for her household’s food needs based on the predictability of the weather. Today, all she can do is pray and make the best of the hand she gets dealt by mother nature.


Written by Luzayo Nyirongo, Communications Coordinator