My shoes sank deep into the crystalline sand of what used to be a river. An elderly man from Fombe village, Malawi told me that water streamed here year round when he was a child. Banana trees and other vegetation once flourished on its banks, and an abundance of fish provided a critical source of protein for those who lived nearby. In 1977, however, the waters began receding and now flow only a handful of days each year.
In America, climate change is a matter of debate, but in places like Malawi, it’s a matter of life and death.
This small country is one of the poorest and most densely populated in the world. Ninety percent of Malawians live off the grid, and nearly four out of ten are undernourhsied. Among children under five years old, 63 percent are anemic and nearly half are stunted according to USAID.
At first blush, it is difficult to understand why there is so much suffering in Malawi. The soil is rich in nutrients and pastoral parcels of land await development. But with an agro-based economy where more than three-fourths of the population relies on rain-fed agriculture for survival, the changing climate neutralizes the benefits of Malawi’s natural resources.
After traveling across the landlocked, sub-Saharan country to interview dozens of farmers in sparsely populated villages, a recurring storyline emerged. The climate is changing, and the resulting problems are difficult to overcome. Since at least 2000, Malawi has seen an increase in floods and droughts, a trend first recognized by indigenous leaders and later confirmed by the government.
Again and again, elderly men and women recount how the rainy season once came in October and held strong until March. Now the first rains arrive as late as December and may conclude as early as February. The farmland that used to feed a family for an entire year now only produces enough food for eight months or less. In short, farmers have to work harder to produce less.