Mapping Malawian farmers’ vulnerability to the impacts of climate shocks

Damage to a house following floods in Malawi. Photo: Malawi Red Cross Society/Augustine Tonde

Damage to a house following floods in Malawi. Photo: Malawi Red Cross Society/Augustine Tonde

Unprecedented floods experienced in Malawi in early 2015 left a trail of destruction in the central and southern parts of the country. Higher frequency of related incidents together with episodes of drought threaten agriculture-dependent livelihoods and the economy at large.

Besides flooding and drought, the country is also affected by environmental challenges arising from deforestation and land degradation. Forest cover declined from 3.9 million hectares in 1990 to 3.2 million hectares in 2010 mainly due to conversion to farmland, slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal burning, bush fires and harvesting and harvesting of wood. Loss of fertile soil also has negative impacts on the water cycle, biodiversity and supportive ecosystem services.

“These climatic changes and environmental stresses have sparked the interest of development agencies and research institutions to report evidences of their occurrence and explore their impact on agriculture,” remarked Jeanne Coulibaly of the World Agroforestry Centre. “Existing studies on climate change impacts focus mainly on biophysical aspects with attention on crop yield and livestock production. However, this does not adequately explain the causes for this vulnerability.”

A team of researchers explored socio-economic conditions that affect the ability of households to cope with climate change and land degradation in Malawi’s Shire River basin.

The Shire is the largest river in the country and forms the outlet for Lake Malawi and is a trans-boundary river in the Zambezi basin, passing through Mozambique. The region has the highest levels of poverty in Malawi and a rural economy based on subsistence and rain-fed farming. Large-scale farms mainly grow cash crops. The Shire River basin is described as being vulnerable to climate change and variability, with scientific evidence of a shift towards extreme weather events.

Data source

The study was conducted in five districts of Machinga, Zomba, Blantyre, Mwanza and Chikwawa using primary data collected from a household survey conducted in 2009, together with rainfall and temperature observations recorded from 1972 to 2009.

Data included household demographics, food and agro-forestry practices, sources of income, soil fertility, access to extension services, livelihood assets and climate change issues. Climate change information related to households’ perceptions of a shift in the frequency and severity of drought, flood, soil erosion, variation in the length of the growing season and onset of the rains.

In addition to the household survey was a key informants and stakeholder consultation to identify the major environmental challenges in the five districts.

Analyzing vulnerability

Smallholder farmers in Malawi are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Photo: ICRAF.

Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Photo: ICRAF.

For this study, the researchers used the definition of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change that describes vulnerability as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude and rate of climate change and variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity and its adaptive capacity”.

The first parameter of vulnerability is exposure, which refers to the extent to which a system is prone to the climate hazard. Incidences of droughts and floods increased in Malawi from the early 1990s and have affected agricultural production. Vulnerability is expected to increase with a rise in the frequency of extreme climate events and variability.

The second parameter is sensitivity, representing circumstances that can reduce or worsen the impact. This is closely related to the conditions of the natural resources on which the households depend. As agriculture is the primary source of food supply and income in the communities surveyed, poor land quality and increasing proportion of unproductive land will worsen the impact of climate change and increase households’ reaction to climate related events.

The third is adaptive capacity, which corresponds to the human ability to resist or adjust to the stress impact. The researchers categorized adaptive capacity of households into four: social capital (number of family members), human capital (level of education), physical capital (quality of housing) and financial capital (land area and farm income). Natural capital (land quality), also considered as a fifth category of households’ adaptive capacity, was included in the sensitivity parameter. These factors determine how different households in the same community may be affected by the same shock.

Exposure and sensitivity represent the potential impact, while adaptive capacity is the extent to which a community can cope with the risk and avert the impact of the hazard.

Conclusions and policy recommendations

According to Coulibaly, results show that sensitivity and adaptive capacities largely define how vulnerable households and districts are to climate extremes. Malawi’s National Adaptation Programmes of Action, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, provides for options such as afforestation and re-afforestation to control siltation, provide fuel and an alternative source of cash income. This technology can also improve soil fertility and increase crop yields.

Other solutions include provision of irrigation services, farmers’ education, community participation in natural resources management and sustaining livelihoods for vulnerable communities.

Better access to agroforestry and increased spending on education and income generation opportunities can improve households’ ability to adapt to climate shocks.

For districts such as Chikwawa, Machinga and Blantyre that have poor adaptive capacities and are highly exposed to climate stress, government policies can promote the development of index-based insurance, ensure access to climate forecasts, early warning information and facilitate safety nets. Attention should also be given to the improvement of women’s livelihoods through better access to productive assets and resources.

To reduce vulnerability to climate impact, the study suggests that national adaptation strategies adopted by the government should be mainstreamed into specific local adaptation actions.

Policy makers can use this study to develop plans to tackle anticipated disasters and assist communities to adapt to the adverse impacts of various hazards.

Download the paper here.

Coulibaly, J. , Mbow, C. , Sileshi, G. , Beedy, T. , Kundhlande, G. and Musau, J. (2015) Mapping Vulnerability to Climate Change in Malawi: Spatial and Social Differentiation in the Shire River Basin. American Journal of Climate Change, 4, 282-294. doi: 10.4236/ajcc.2015.43023.

The authors would like to acknowledge the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for providing support for this research under the Land Capability and Sustainability project in the Lower Shire River Basin.

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Susan Onyango

Susan Onyango

Susan Onyango is the communications specialist for climate change for the World Agroforestry Centre and is based at the headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. With over 12 year’s experience in communication, she promotes the World Agroforestry Centre’s work on climate change, writes blogs and provides communication advice and support to scientists. Susan holds a MA communication studies and a BA in English. Twitter: @susanonyango

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