Malawi: Climate Change Undermining Girls' Education

(File photo).

For many years, the rainy season in Malawi starts from October to April, but this year, the season has delayed by at least two months, with some unusual hit waves hitting communities hard.

In the face of a changing climate, a lot of people are prone to these extreme weather events. Extremely high temperatures are occurring more frequently. Precipitation patterns are changing.

Malawi's vulnerability to climate change is exacerbated by high population growth, rapid deforestation, and widespread soil erosion.

The World Bank climate profile of Malawi states that Malawi is particularly prone to adverse climate hazards including dry spells, seasonal droughts, floods and flash floods.

The World Bank further says in the coming decades, rainfall is likely to become more erratic and temperatures will reach the heat threshold of some crops, and extended dry periods will become more common.

These changes have major implications for human welfare and threaten to undermine development gains across sectors.

Already, the high temperatures have seen most streams and rivers drying up, forcing school-aged girls and women not only to walk long distances but also spending more time fetching water.

Water is the most basic of all human necessities, and school-aged-girls have primary responsibility of fetching water and typically do this nearly every day. The arduous journey to fetch water keep girls away from school and poor community sanitation makes children get sick too.

Chisomo Malivasi, 13, who dreams of becoming a nurse, says fetching water is becoming more dislikeable. It is her duty to fetch water for the family and walks about 1.2 kilometers to the nearest water source.

"I wake up around 4:00am to fetch water, but we spend more time at the borehole because the water pressure is low. And mostly, we report for classes late.

"When you return, you are asked to go for a second haul, and this is what frustrates my education. I do not have any option but follow what my mother asks me to do. If water sources were closer to where I stay, it couldn't have been a problem at all," says Chisomo.

Zikomo Banda, a teacher at Matchombe Primary School equally admits that after carrying out household chores, school-going children - most of them are girls - get to school exhausted after walk long distances.

Banda observes that without basic necessities like clean water, food, and healthcare, it's hard for the children to accomplish their dreams.

"It's unfortunate that parents still force their children to perform tiresome chores before they go to school. This is disadvantaging most girls.

"One's life, dreams, and future are tied to what you have or don't have today," he observes.

Likewise, the United Nations estimates that, in less than 10 years, 1.8 billion people around the world will live in water-stressed areas due to changes in climate and population.

The UN further says if current patterns continue, this will disproportionately impact women and girls who will be forced to spend increasing amounts of time and energy searching for and retrieving water.

In 2021 alone, the Malala Fund estimates, climate-related events will prevent at least 4 million girls in lower-income countries from finishing their education. By 2025, climate change could keep more than 12 million girls from completing their education every year.

"We can't hope to build resilience for the decades ahead unless we educate all children. This especially is true for girls. Education prepares women to develop climate solutions, secure green jobs and address issues at the heart of this crisis," says MalalaYousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and education activist.

UNDP report--titled Scaling Up the Use of Modernized Climate Information and Early Warning Systems in Malawi, says the impact of climate -related disasters impact women's and girls' access to education.

"For example, often after a disaster, many girls are forced to drop out of school to help with chores in the house, or to save money."

Chikwawa in Malawi's southern region has a population of over 350,000 people. It is one of the districts prone to dry spells, floods and other natural calamities.

The district is traditionally hot and due to global warming, the temperatures are getting even higher.

The streams and rivers which used to flow with water all year round have turned seasonal - flowing with water only for a limited period of time then they are dry.

In most places the vegetative cover has been cleared and when it rains the area experiences a lot of run off. This results in water scarcity issues.

The water table continues to drop with boreholes losing its capacity to provide water to the communities.

So far over six rivers in the district, which used to be perennial, have since dried up and turned into rivers of sand.

At the same time, more than 20 boreholes have dried up as well, leaving over 5,000 people who depended on them with no better option but to walk long distances to fetch water from elsewhere, normally from unprotected water sources.

Esnart Makina, 46, from Jofina village, Traditional Authority Katunga, says climate change has drastically affected communities there in that getting quality water is but a real struggle.

"Girls and women have largely been affected in terms of fetching water. Previously the rivers would run all year round but now when the rains stop, the rivers dry up. They have to walk long distances," she says.

Women and girls waste precious time at a borehole due to low pressure

The Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests in Malawi (MCHF), a project co-funded by USAID and UKaid, concurs that the absence of forest cover has also caused most rivers to dry up quickly, making access to water extremely difficult for rural communities especially women who have to walk long distances to fetch water for domestic use.

MCHF Chief of Party to Malawi, Ramsy Kanaan says low base flows or no stream flows during the dry season means that water is in short supply for domestic water use and irrigation resulting in severe competition between domestic water user and those involved irrigation.

"Given less water infiltrating the ground over time due to deforestation, rivers will dry up in the dry season and water tables will continue to decline necessitating even deeper wells and boreholes," says Kanaan.

Kanaan: Absence of forest cover has caused rivers to dry up

According to Frackson Nankwawa, a trained borehole technician, who services dysfunctional boreholes in the area, the problem of boreholes not being able to pump out water has reached alarming levels in the area because he knows at least four water points which are not functional due to the low water table.

Nankwawa equally believes this is due to climate change and environmental degradation in the area.

"The water table has dropped significantly and since it is a dry season now, the borehole pumping rods don't reach the water table. This means that these water points will only resume functioning again when it will start to rain sometime in December," says Nankwama.

This problem is occurring a time when UN member states adopted Sustainable Development Goal for water and sanitation [Goal 6), which calls for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030.

The first step is providing everyone with a basic service within a 30-minute round trip, and the long term goal is to ensure everyone has safe water available at home.

According to UNICEF Malawi, in rural areas, 37% of households spend 30 minutes or more to fetch drinking water in comparison to 13 per cent in urban areas.

UNICEF Malawi also observes that some water points nationwide are no longer working because of catchment deterioration, neglect, lack of spare parts and inadequate community-based water management structures.

"Malawi has seen an increase of droughts and floods in recent years. The high incidence of floods in the Lower Shire has displaced local populations. The interruption or degradation of WASH services in affected communities during times of crisis affects health, nutritional status and the safety and dignity of children and women," says Unicef Malawi.

According to the UN agency, poor sanitation and hygiene are major contributors to the burden of disease and child survival, costing Malawi US$57 million each year, or 1.1 per cent of national GDP, due to health costs and productivity losses.

UNICEF therefore supports Malawi government's vision of providing safely managed drinking water services for all by 2030.

UNICEF priority areas of work include increasing coverage of basic water supplies to provide services on a large scale, water quality and safety, strengthening operation and maintenance to improve functionality and sustainability, buildingcommunity resilience, catchment management and water conservation, and improving the WASH monitoring system to enable quality implementation.

However, Paramount Chief Lundu and Nankawa advises the communities to plant trees around water points and hills to deal with the problem in the long run.

Paramount Chief Lundu: Let's plant more trees

Lundu says the impact of climate change is now affecting everyone to the extent that it is a challenge needing joint effort to deal with, in order to make the world a better place again.

"We know tree planting and forest protection are key to water conservation and keeping Malawian's safe from flooding.

"At every opportunity, I share messages and raise awareness of the importance of tree planting and maintenance," says Lundu.

Acting Water Officer for Chikwawa, Rester Msunza says planting and regenerating trees along water courses is critical in protecting rivers and other water points.

"We are trying to empower local communities to become the solution and work in partnership with them and government departments. Together we have introduced bylaws and educated the local communities on benefits of forests and water conservation," says Msunza.

Kanaan calls for promotion of sustainable forest management and energy options to maintain forest cover and to reduce land-based emissions the country.

He feels the country's forests are threatened due to reliance on biomass for energy and timber for construction; agriculture and settlement expansion; and harmful bushfires.

More than 96% of Malawian households rely on firewood and charcoal as their primary cooking fuels, which is the most significant driver of deforestation and forest degradation.

"The country's high population density and growth is deteriorating the situation. In order to maintain forest cover and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Malawi needs innovative solutions that prioritize citizens' cooking energy needs, and properly manage and regulate forest resources," says Kanaan.

He further calls for improved local delivery of forestry services,and promoting forest-friendly enterprises, including sustainable charcoal and other biomass energies, strengthening regulation and enforcement to support sustainable wood fuel production and use.

"An increased provision of safe, treated water, more efficient use of produced water, and additional water conservation and environmental protection efforts are needed to ensure the viability of the water supply for future generations," he says.

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