Malawi struggles to feed millions following parching drought

A dog chases cattle searching for water in a homestead yard in Matobo, Matabeleland
The drought has sparked national emergencies in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia - ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP via Getty Images

On a clear sunny afternoon, two oxes tied to a cart trot past a maize field with a group of boys manning it. Eyes ahead and with sticks controlling the animals, the teenagers seem almost oblivious to the empty fields around them. The month is June and normally the cart would have been full of ripe maize, but this year there is virtually nothing.

George Makaniso has a one-acre farm in Phikani, a small village in the Chikwawa district of southern Malawi. Dead and wilted plants cover the small plot, testimony to the failed season.

“We planted our maize in January but by February, the rains had stopped,” explains Mr Makaniso. “We waited and hoped that by the grace of God, the rains would eventually fall. But as the maize grew and reached the flowering stage, the sun got hotter. All the maize plants withered down after it had already had cobs and we didn’t harvest anything”.

The father of two now wonders how he and his family will survive. “From this field we could harvest ten bags or more, but this time we did not manage to get even a single bag. As a breadwinner, I am in a desperate situation”.

His first daughter, who is in Standard Seven at the nearby primary school, is finding it hard to focus in class as often the family goes to sleep without a proper meal.

“I sometimes miss classes because I can’t manage while hungry ... it makes me weak and depressed,” she says.

An aerial view of cattle feeding on shrubs in a barren field
Hungry cattle feed on shrubs in a barren field - ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP via Getty Images

Almost nine million people in Malawi are now classed as “food insecure”.

The warm currents of El Nino have brought both extreme weather and drought to large parts of southern Africa, destroying millions of acres of crops.

In April, Malawi declared a state of disaster in 23 of its 28 districts and called for humanitarian assistance.

Food aid agencies and health workers predict the shortages will lead to a spike in malnutrition across the country. Already hunger is taking its toll in several areas, especially among children.

At the Tiyanjane Care Group in Machinga district in eastern Malawi, workers spend their days checking children’s weight and preparing porridge for them.

“We’ve seen a rise in the number of children who are underweight and malnourished. We prepare six food groups to make sure they are not malnourished. When we’re weighing them and [their weight] is very low we refer them to hospitals,” said Jacqueline Chitenjere, a health surveillance assistant.

With support from organisations like World Vision, the communities prepare porridge for the malnourished children in a unique way including adding groundnuts and other nutrients. The aim is to encourage the parents to adopt the practice in their homes.

A man fetches water from a pond to water his calves in Matobo, Matabeleland
A man fetches water from a pond for his cattle herd - ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP via Getty Images

Elsewhere, breastfeeding mothers say they cannot produce enough milk for their babies due to lack of food, with some eating just once a day.

Medics report an increase of malnutrition cases and report that patients who were treated and recovered are now once again relapsing.

The children’s charity UNICEF is working to combat malnutrition in Malawi through ‘capacity building of health workers, toolkits for nutrition screening, RUTF and therapeutic milk, as well as promoting positive child feeding practices and behaviours’.

World Vision is one of the organisations responding to the disaster. Apart from exploring the options of reaching out to the victims with aid, it banks on its already existing projects aimed at reforestation and water conservation to minimise the impact of future disasters.

Experts say maize production – which is a major food crop – is at approximately 2.8 million metric tonnes from an annual requirement of around 3.7 million metric tonnes leaving a deficit of around 830,000 metric tonnes .

This means that challenges of malnutrition are likely going to increase mainly amongst children under the age of 5 years which may further contribute to increased fatality rates amongst the stated age group according to Sobhuza Sibande World Vision Malawi Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs Manager.

“Much as there are preparations being done to respond to the crisis, there is a big gap in required resources versus what is  available. As World, the organisation always has a fund that is used to start up with response activities once a disaster hits which is called the National Emergency Preparedness Fund (NEPRF). Mostly it is not adequate to be used to support all those  that are affected but it allows the organisation to get started as other resource mobilisation efforts begin,” Sibande told the Telegraph in an interview.

“In some areas the organisation has started procuring farm inputs to provide to some farmers who have the potential to do winter cropping while others are procuring food (like maize flour) to support those that are at the verge of starvation,” he added.

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