In January, I visited Nsanje District, the southern-most district in Malawi. This is work is part of All We Can’s humanitarian emergency response to El Niño induced droughts in the region. The El Niño effect, which can drive droughts and flooding, is believed to have been exacerbated by climate change and has resulted in unpredictable rainfall in the area. In Malawi, over 6 million people are food insecure, and despite not getting much media attention in 2016, the lack of rain in Southern Africa resulted in a major humanitarian crisis. At first Nsanje District seems a pleasant place to be, but the problems become evident as you spend time there – It is one of the poorest districts in Malawi. There are far more natural disasters in this district than other areas of Malawi; villages in Nsanje are prone to both droughts and flooding. Even though it seems a secure, picturesque area to be in it is marred by poverty and hard-working families are unable to work their way out of their situation. Every year a natural disaster sets them back.
When you talk with families, it quickly becomes apparent that they do not really have much at all. They do not have enough food; many families are only eating once a day. The families I met had been able to manage two meals a day, but that was only because of short-term World Food Programme assistance. I met a mother called Mary, her husband died so she is a single mother struggling to bring up children on her own. She told me that for a number of years she has found it very difficult to harvest enough food for the family because of the lack of rain and the difficulty in predicting when that rain will come. To make ends meet she goes out every day and collects firewood. The sale of a bundle of firewood means she can buy 1kg of maize; this is what the family then relies on for food for the day. I asked her what happens when she is sick or when she is unable to work. She said simply, “we don’t eat”. Mary is living a hand-to-mouth existence, hearing her story about the kind of life she is forced to live was very humbling. When I asked her what her hopes were for the future she found it hard to think of anything, her situation is so desperate that it is difficult for her to be hopeful. After a few moments, she said that her dream would be to save enough money to buy a goat. If something happened to her, forcing her to stop work, the sale of a goat would offer some financial security.
All We Can has a local partner that know the communities I visited really well. Together we are thinking about some of the long-term solutions to climate change affected regions. Rather than just providing relief to disaster-affected communities, they are trying to provide things like solar irrigation so that long-term food security and improved livelihoods can become a possibility. Solar irrigation is a way of extracting ground water from a well using alternative energy. The benefits are many, it is virtually free to run once established the community does not have to pay for fuel and there is very little need for maintenance. Women like Mary are able to irrigate their crops regardless of the impacts of climate change. It is more effective for us to provide communities with long-term sustainable solutions. Food handouts are a short-term solution to a long-term problem. It does not do anything to build resilience in the communities we work with. A response like this empowers communities to take control of their lives.
I believe we are going to see more problems like those that Mary is facing. The impact of a changing and increasingly unpredictable climate is making it more difficult for people to maintain their livelihoods and is increasing poverty levels. I think sadly it is a safe assumption to make that we are going to see more climate related disasters. The challenge for the future is to work together as a global community to find ways to address these long-term problems, and to create more sustainable ways for some of the world’s poorest communities to adapt, cope and become resilient.
The cost of adapting to climate change is out of reach for many poor people in communities that rely on subsistence farming to feed their families. Some of our Extraordinary Gifts support families in finding sustainable solutions.