Southern Africa Drought: Malawi Oxfam Report 1

Situation Report
Originally published
By Gary Iveson

The districts of Mulanje and Thyolo in the south are categorized among the poorest in Malawi. Most households rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods, but their plots of land average less than 1 hectare per household, so they do not grow enough food to meet their needs. Daily agricultural labour in neighbouring tea estates or "ganhu" across the border in Mozambique allow households to supplement their income. In order to alleviate the high level of vulnerability in these districts, several aid agencies are already engaged in development programmes whose general objective is to improve the livelihoods of the population. These agencies include GTZ Integrated Food Security Programme and Oxfam Livelihoods programme in Mulanje district. The national food crisis has impacted on these programmes.

In addition Medicins Sans Frontiers (Luxembourg), assists with nutrition rehabilitation activities as part of an HIV/AIDS project in Thyolo district. It is estimated that one in five people in Malawi are affected by HIV/AIDS.

Towards the end of 2001, reports from various fora were indicating a worsening food security situation across the entire country. This was due to a reduced production during the 2000/2001 cropping season, which was characterized by floods and crop wash-a-ways. Midway into the 2001/2002 cropping season (around December 2001), similar reports emerged, only this time there were no national reserves that people could buy. The price of maize (the main staple) increased from K250 per 50 kg bag to K850 per 50 kg bag overnight, making it grossly unaffordable. The government attempted to stabilise the prices and ration maize sales to 10kg per person, however private traders set their own prices.

By February 2002, the maize shortage was at its peak, and most maize markets had no stocks. A few hunger-related deaths were also reported. Amid rising pressure from donors and civil society, the government declared a state of disaster on 27th February 2002 with an appeal for assistance. At this time SCF-UK quantified the levels of malnutrition in the Central region, with alarming results.

Oxfam carried out a rapid food security assessment in October 2001 in Mulanje, reporting an erosion of the yearly coping mechanisms due to the high prices for maize in the market. A quick analysis of the national situation in January 2002 led to the recommendation that a thorough nutrition assessment should be undertaken in the two Oxfam operational districts (Mulanje and Thyolo). This assessment has helped to determine the severity of the situation as well as the impact that the food shortage is having on livelihoods. The survey examined the nutritional status, food security and mortality within the districts of Mulanje and Thyolo and was completed in March 2002.

Assessment Results

The malnutrition rates that have been obtained through this survey are high and reflect the severity of the situation at the peak of the hungry season. Interventions to prevent further deterioration in nutritional status and to strengthen livelihood systems before the next hunger season are required in both districts.

Household food stocks are very low this year as people have been consuming green maize since the end of March and are eating into their stocks. Most households will run out of food by June/July which is 3 months earlier than usual in these districts that never grow enough food to meet their demands for the whole year. Access to work and prices of food in the market will determine the ability to provide for their food needs once their stocks have run out. National policies to ensure adequate supply of grain at retail outlets will have a major role to play in the food security of the population during the lean period.

Oxfam's Response

In preparation for severe food deficits and in order to delay the onset of the 'hunger gap', Oxfam has begun a programme of winter cropping. Combined packages of maize and bean seeds and sweet potato cuttings with vegetable seeds are now being distributed to 70,000 families (approximately 350,000 people). Oxfam is also providing water pumps and watering cans to assist irrigation systems. This work will be carried out through existing Oxfam partner organisations.

A further nutrition survey will be conducted in early September, to obtain a clear picture of the nutritional status. Findings from this survey will inform any assistance programmes that would be planned for implementation and will enable consistent monitoring of the severity of the situation.