The daily struggle to survive hunger is Malawi's 'new normal'

As Malawi experiences the worst drought it's had for 35 years, exacerbated by El Niño, many are suffering from hunger and starvation. Benjamin Phillips, Oxfam Humanitarian Officer, shares with us his experience on a recent visit to the country.

‘If you come back in August you (probably) won’t find us here,’ one man I recently met in drought-stricken southern Malawi told me. What was frightening was that I heard this repeatedly from the many families I met with in other parts of the country, currently ravaged by Southern Africa’s worst drought in 35 years caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

The reality is grim. Poor harvests for the past two years have left millions of Malawians struggling to meet their food needs, and with an international community that has not woken up to respond. People are already going hungry, forced to skip meals or sell assets in order to buy food. Children are either too hungry to go to school or are forced to drop out to look for work to provide food for their families.

Seeing it firsthand made me realize how severe the needs are.

The brink of catastrophe

As I walked through the villages and cultivable land of Balaka district in southern Malawi and one of the worst affected areas, the sense that things are worse than usual was evident. Crops have withered without enough rain water, rivers are dry and people have had to dig three times as deep to find water.

Stalks of maize grown at this time of the year are thinner than usual. Little to no rain has dried up the soil and the leaves on certain crops are smaller than they should be.

It is the subtle tell-tale signs - albeit different from one farm to the other - that reaffirm one collective fear: people are at the brink of catastrophe.

Farmers describe how first flooding and then drought have destroyed crops. Balaka district, Malawi. Credit: Daud Kayisi/Oxfam

Maize, the country’s staple, is usually easy to produce therefore can be grown at a large scale. However, the El Nino weather phenomenon has caused longer dry spells and flooding in some areas, destroying crops and significantly reducing harvests. Climate change is set to make weather like this the new normal for places like Malawi, and maize is one of the most vulnerable crops to drought.  

The country’s current maize deficit of over 400,000 tonnes reaffirms how the situation has deteriorated since 2015.

In June 2016, the Malawian government announced that 6.5 million people would face food insecurity because of the drought. If we all don’t act together and fast, help will not reach those who desperately need it and we risk losing lives. Action is needed now to ensure that people have access to food, when they need it.

Oxfam is there

In Balaka, Oxfam has provided drought resistant crops like sweet potato vines, to enable affected families to continue cultivation even in dry conditions. 48 year old Rose Usi from Balaka’s Njale village said as she didn’t harvest enough maize this year, ‘the potatoes have come to her family’s rescue’. She is able to not only provide quality food for her family but also sell the surplus and use the money to cover other basic needs.

Projects such as these not only improve people’s access to urgent food, but also build their crop production skills particularly with the inevitable climate changes. Any surplus sold means that families have an alternative source of income and still maintain local markets.

Ultimately, communities are more prepared for and cope better in future emergencies.

But funds needed to provide much needed help have been slow or scarce. Oxfam needs $16 million to provide assistance to 650,000 people in Malawi until mid-2017. To date, we have received only 14% of the funding we require to meet these needs. From April to May 2016, Oxfam provided 203,264 drought affected people with cash assistance in Mulanje, Lilongwe and Kasungu districts.

Since markets are still functioning in some areas, cash has been an effective way to support both people and local markets. In June, Oxfam assisted over 29,000 people in Balaka district with sweet potato vines, maize and vegetable seeds and fertilisers. We are currently preparing to support a further 77,000 people with cash transfers to enable them purchase food, and 6,000 people with additional agricultural inputs in Balaka and Mulanje districts.

Hunger is not inevitable

When you see the difficulties that people are going through you want to shout from the rooftops and wake the world to stop this catastrophe from unfolding further.

Hunger isn’t inevitable. Lives can be saved and livelihoods restored. But, everyone including international donors, national governments and humanitarian actors must do their fair share before it’s too late.

This entry was posted by Ben Phillips, Oxfam Humanitarian Officer, on 21 July 2016.

Photos: (top) Rose Usi, Balaka district, Malawi. Credit: Daud Kayisi/Oxfam. (middle) Farmers describe how first flooding and then drought have destroyed crops. Balaka district, Malawi. Credit: Daud Kayisi/Oxfam

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Rose Usi, Balaka district, Malawi. Credit: Daud Kayisi/Oxfam

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