by Faith Muisyo, Head of Region, Southern Africa Network for Fairtrade Africa
Support farming communities to get back on their feet
Starting January 7, the heaviest rains for 40 years struck Malawi, resulting in devastating floods. According to reports, over 300,000 people have been displaced and more than a million people will be affected by destruction of agriculture. Faith Muisyo of Fairtrade Africa tells us what’s happening on the ground, and what we need to do to help.
Malawi is one of the least developed countries ranked 174th out of 187 countries surveyed on the United Nations Human Development Index. More than half the population lives on less than $1 a day, and poverty remains widespread in rural areas. Rural communities are mainly engaged in subsistence farming, deriving over 80% of their livelihood from agricultural production limited to cotton, tea, sugar cane and cattle breeding.
Climate change is real and is affecting communities in ways unprecedented. This is evidenced by prolonged spells of droughts, recurrent floods, changes in soil conditions, and environmental degradation, to name a few.
October marks the beginning of the rainfall season in Malawi. Heavy rains were experienced from the beginning of January leading to the worst floods the country has experienced in decades and causing a lot of damage. The floods have unfortunately claimed the lives of 176 people as of January 23, including the lives of six farmers and two of their children on a Fairtrade certified farm. This follows extensive flooding in 2013. Hardly have the communities fully recovered and they have been hit again. According to the Government of Malawi, 116,000 households lost crops and livestock, 42,000 hectares of agriculture land has been destroyed and 100,000 Metric Tons of crop yield is estimated to be lost. Additionally, infrastructure such as roads, houses, bridges and irrigation has suffered extensive damage, meaning even those farmers who had crops that were spared in the fields will struggle to get them to market.
The effects of the floods are strongly being felt right now, with many losing their property, sources of livelihood and being exposed to health risks such as malaria and water borne diseases. But just as importantly the impact will continue to bite in months if not years to come as farmers have lost the productive assets they rely on for income, families have lost bread winners and trade has been significantly disrupted.
As the farmers look at their fields, the future looks dim and many feel helpless having watched the floods strip them of assets that supported their livelihoods. The floods destroyed mature standing crops, or those at the peak of harvest and they’ve washed away livestock which will mean food insecurity and hunger for families that were previously able to fend for themselves.
As there is a short replanting season in winter, farmers will need to replant quickly after the floodwaters recede, but they lack the tools and seeds to do so. What is more, for the majority of cash crop farmers, their replanting will only result in income in five years’ time, as it takes over four years for replanted tea seedlings to mature and yield a return. This spells doom for these farmers, and there is potential for a strong decline in living conditions, perhaps for years to come if assistance for recovery is not offered. This is indeed a race against time.
Currently, a lot of recovery efforts are almost entirely focused on an emergency rescue and relief operation coordinated by the government, United Nations and other non-profit organisations. Support offered includes rescue operations, medical assistance, evacuation and managing population displacement, as well as provision of shelter materials, food aid, non-food items and health services.
Whilst emergency care is the priority, recovering the agricultural sector in the aftermath of a disaster is vital to long-term survival and sustainability of communities. Unfortunately, this kind of support is yet to be provided in a widespread way.
Fairtrade Africa can support livelihood recovery efforts by distributing agricultural start-up kits containing seedlings, fertilisers and crop nutrients, as well as coordinating training on good agricultural practices, and repair of irrigation systems. In addition, we can help farmers become more resilient to future flooding by coordinating the training of and implementation of disaster risk reduction interventions to equip communities to be better prepared to hand future shocks.
We need to help farmers recover following this latest flood, and to prepare for future shocks, which thanks to climate change are becoming more likely.