27 November 2007

Malawi: Climate Change - More of The Same, And Worse


In these two extracts from its Human Development Report 2007/2008, the UN Development Programme tells both how climate change paints a bleak picture for Malawi, and how public policies can reduce vulnerability to climate risk.

Climate change models paint a bleak picture for Malawi. Global warming is projected to increase temperatures by 2–3ºC by 2050, with a decline in rainfall and reduced water availability.

The combination of higher temperatures and less rain will translate into a marked reduction in soil moisture, affecting the 90 percent of smallholder farmers who depend on rain-fed production. Production potential for maize, the main smallholder food crop, which in a normal year is the source of three-quarters of calorie consumption, is projected to fall by over 10 percent.

It is hard to overstate the implications for human development. Climate change impacts will be superimposed on a country marked by high levels of vulnerability, including poor nutrition and among the world's most intense HIV/AIDS crisis: almost one million people are living with the disease.

Poverty is endemic. Two in every three Malawians live below the national poverty line. The country ranks 164 out of the 177 countries measured in the Human Development Index (HDI). Life expectancy has fallen to about 46 years.

Successive droughts and floods in recent years have demonstrated the added pressures that climate change could generate. In 2001/2002, the country suffered one of the worst famines in recent living memory as localized floods cut maize output by one-third.

Between 500 and 1,000 people in the central and southern part of the country died during the disaster or in the immediate aftermath. Up to 20,000 are estimated to have died as an indirect result of associated malnutrition and disease. As maize prices rose, malnutrition increased: from 9 percent to 19 percent between December 2001 and March 2002 in the district of Salima.

The 2001/2002 drought undermined coping strategies. People were forced not just to cut back on meals, withdraw children from school, sell household goods and increase casual labour, but also to eat seeds that would have been planted and exchange productive assets for food.

As a result, many farmers had no seed to plant in 2002. In 2005, the country was again in the grip of a crisis caused by drought, with more than 4.7 million people out of a population of over 13 million experiencing food shortages.

Climate change threatens to reinforce the already powerful cycles of deprivation created by drought and flood. Incremental risks will be superimposed upon a society marked by deep vulnerabilities.

In a 'normal' year, two-thirds of households are unable to produce enough maize to cover household needs. Declining soil fertility, associated with limited access to fertilizer, credit and other inputs, has reduced maize production from 2.0 tonnes per hectare to 0.8 tonnes over the past two decades. Productivity losses linked to reduced rainfall will make a bad situation far worse.

Apart from its immediate consequences for health, HIV/AIDS has created new categories of vulnerable groups. These include households lacking adult labour or headed by elderly people or children, and households with sick family members unable to maintain production.

Women are faced with the triple burden of agricultural production, caring for HIV/AID victims and orphans, and collecting water and firewood. Almost all HIV/AIDS-affected households covered in a survey of the Central region reported reduced agricultural production. HIV/AIDS-affected groups will be in the front line facing incremental climate change risks.

For a country like Malawi climate change has the potential to produce extreme setbacks for human development. Even very small increments to risk through climate change can be expected to create rapid downwards spirals.

Some of the risks can be mitigated through better information, flood management infrastructure and drought-response measures. Social resilience has to be developed through social provision, welfare transfers and safety nets that raise the productivity of the most vulnerable households, empowering them to manage risk more effectively.

Reducing Vulnerability Through Agriculture

One of the ways in which climate shocks create cycles of disadvantage is through their impact on agricultural production. When a drought or flood destroys a harvest, the resulting loss of income and assets can leave households unable to afford the seed, fertilizer and other inputs needed to restore production the following year. Well framed public policy interventions can break the cycle, as demonstrated by recent experience in Malawi.

The 2005 maize harvest in Malawi was one of the worst on record. Following successive droughts and floods, production fell from 1.6 million tonnes in the previous year to 1.2 million tonnes—a decline of 29 percent. Over five million people faced food shortages. With rural incomes in free fall, households lacked the resources to invest in inputs for the 2006 cropping season, raising the spectre of a famine on the scale of that experienced in 2002.

Supported by a group of donors, the Government of Malawi put in place a strategy for getting productive inputs into the hands of small-scale farmers.

Around 311,000 tonnes of fertilizer and 11,000 tonnes of maize seed were sold at subsidized prices. Over two million households purchased fertilizer at US$7 for 50 kg—less than one-third of the world price. For distribution, the government used private sector outlets as well as state agencies, enabling farmers to choose their source of supply.

Subsequent harvests showed that this productive inputs programme was a moderate success. Good rains and an increase in the area planted to improved crop varieties raised productivity and overall output. It is estimated that the programme generated an additional 600,000–700,000 tonnes of maize in 2007, independent of rainfall variation.

The value of this extra production has been estimated at between US$100 million and US$160 million, compared with the US$70 million cost of the programme. The Malawian economy has also benefited from a reduction in food import requirements. And the increased production has generated household income and employment opportunities.

The productive inputs programme is not a stand-alone strategy for human development. Nor is it a panacea for rural poverty. Far more needs to be done to strengthen the accountability of government, tackle deep-seated inequalities and increase the level of investment in basic service provision for the poor. The programme will have to be retained for several years if it is to break the cycle of low productivity that afflicts Malawian agriculture.

Nevertheless, the country's experience underlines the role that public policies can play in reducing vulnerability to climate risk by creating an enabling environment for poverty reduction.

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