El Niño: Trying to rebuild lives between floods and droughts in Malawi

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The global El Niño phenomenon, manifesting in droughts and floods, is affecting millions of people across Africa, especially in the eastern, central and southern regions. In most cases, El Niño is exacerbating already dire conditions, like in Ethiopia and Malawi, and worsening protracted crises like in Somalia.

The European Commission has just allocated over €100 million to help African countries affected by the phenomenon: €79 million for the greater Horn of Africa, €20 million for central Africa, and a further €12 million for the southern Africa region.

In addition to emergency measures, the Commission is also supporting programmes to build the resilience and capacity of communities to deal with natural disasters in the long run. One such example is Malawi, where the Commission, in partnership with Save The Children, is helping families rebuild their livelihoods.

As in most of southern Africa, in Malawi the rains have failed, and a severe drought is beginning to bite. This is worsening an already fragile food security situation in the country where crop production was disrupted by flooding at the beginning of the year.

With a large part of the country dependent on agriculture for food and livelihoods, a majority of the population is very vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters such as drought and flooding.

Andrea Miteng’o, a father of eight from Zomba in southern Malawi, has been unlucky twice this year. In January, he lost all his crops to the flooding that was said to be the worst Malawi has ever experienced. And now with the drought, he and his family are among the 2.8 million Malawians that require food assistance.

The onset of the El Niño phenomenon has triggered one of the worst droughts in southern Africa in recent times. Millions of people across Africa are in need of assistance, and the numbers continue to rise as the continent suffers both drought and floods. A total of 27.5 million people across Africa are affected by El Niño. It is estimated that 7.8 million of these people are in the southern Africa region. Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique are among the countries where the drought has led to food supply shortages and livestock deaths.

“I am afraid I shall not be able to rebuild a life for my family soon,” said Miteng’o. “My primary concern right now is to be able to feed my eight children.” Miteng’o and his wife are providing for their family by doing casual work for which they are each paid 4 kilogrammes of cereals per day.

The European Commission has partnered with Save The Children in Malawi to help the families in need. Through a livelihoods and resilience project for food-affected households, beneficiaries receive cash transfers and are encouraged to plant trees by the river banks to mitigate the effects of floods. Save The Children also supports families to rebuild their livelihoods with seeds for winter cropping, treadle pumps to allow for irrigation, and some cash to support the construction of homes, or the replacement of lost assets.

“While this help has undoubtedly made a difference for these families, the future remains uncertain,” says Matthew Pickard, the country director for Save The Children in Malawi. “The last 12 months have been difficult for Malawi; now the rains are late and predictions are for a shorter, more intense rainy season.”

It is expected that there will be floods, followed by dry spells – all of which point to poor harvest.

“Some call it El Niño. Most famers don’t know much about El Niño, but they know about rainfall patterns and they are worried. All of us are preparing for what might happen”.