Looking beyond food distribution in Malawi’s disaster prone areas

By Horace Nyaka

It is a hot Friday afternoon in Nsanje, one of Malawi’s border districts in the southern region of the country. For Mervis Windson, the day’s heat is made more bearable with the news that she will receive food rations from the Malawi Red Cross Society.

For three hours, she stands in line with hundreds of others, waiting to receive supplies from the Red Cross Society. But the 42-year-old grandmother should not even have to line up for relief food aid. “I am a member of an agricultural scheme where we have plots of land for crop production,” she says. “My family has two acres of land which is enough to produce food for the whole year.”

But this year is different. While Nsanje and its neighbouring district of Chikwawa experience floods every year, this year food is scarce. Malawi is not alone. Other southern African countries of Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Angola are also feeling the hunger.

The Malawi Red Cross Society, in coordination with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is distributing food aid to 9,000 people in the two local districts. But both Windson and the Red Cross agree that addressing food insecurity has to go beyond food distribution and conventional disaster management.

“These two districts have so many water sources that if we look at other ways of reducing the impact of disasters, we can help the people here achieve food efficiency even if annual flooding continues,” says Joseph Ulaya, Disaster Management Manager at the Malawi Red Cross. The National Society will soon start irrigation projects and enhance production of crops that do well despite the region’s harsh weather. This includes a large-scale wind powered irrigation project in Nsanje district, and the introduction of small irrigation pumps for families; interventions which could spread through the Shire valley.

Windson believes the only way out is to move out of rainy season production. “We got free cassava and sweet potato seeds from the government and planted them, but they have been washed away. If everything was okay, our two acres could produce enough food and even have surplus for sale,” she says.

Ulaya agrees. “We have to help communities produce outside the rainy season. If they plant in April using irrigation, even using small-scale means, they can produce twice as much by the time the rains start.”

Ellason Chiwaya, District Irrigation Officer for the neighbouring Chikwawa district, agrees that a complete change of mindset and practice will transform this disaster prone region into a big food producer. “We are encouraging farmers to adopt winter and summer cropping. Although winter cropping is the most viable, we encourage them to maximize production by taking advantage of the summer, and rest when the rains come.”

For Mervis Windson, implementation can’t come soon enough. “We cannot continue relying on food aid. There is always a limit as to how much organizations like the Red Cross can give,” she says.