Malawi’s rural poor don’t know much about the science of climate change but they know the effect it is having on their lives: a slow slide deeper into poverty, in an inexorable cycle of heat, hunger and HIV/Aids.
Across the country farmers tell tales of once fertile soil that now yields very little; of rains that either don’t come on time or that arrive as floods; and of rivers once rich in fish now too shallow and hot to provide this valuable source of protein.
In Balaka, in the south of this long slice of Africa, the elders notice the changes most. Manesi David doesn’t know how old she is but her hair is silver beneath her headscarf, her eyes are rheumy and grown men call her Gogo. “For the past six years I have noticed this change in the weather. I’m not sure what this climate change is but I know the rains have changed. Now hunger is something we have every year. We didn’t have big plots but the soil was good. In the past the sun was not so hot. Malaria is increasing and because the temperature is rising people get tired more easily. People are getting old very quickly nowadays because they are working so hard. But they have to force themselves to continue working because if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
David is part of a new irrigation project run by the Balaka Livelihood Security programme, which works with farmers to try mitigate the effects of climate change. The programme digs wells and uses treadle pumps to irrigate the fields of its 78 members, each of whom has .1 (point 1) of a hectare under cultivation. The group grows sweet potatoes, pumpkins and maize in the hope of fending off the ever-present threat of starvation. “These days we are experiencing a lot of problems because the rains are unpredictable,” says David. “It is now like we are in a desert. It is all hunger.”
Burnett Chambulika, headman of the village reads a newspaper whenever he can afford one and listens to the radio avidly. “Many factories overseas use coal and they have destroyed nature because they put fumes into the atmosphere. Now the seas that were covered in ice have ships moving through them. That shows how things have really changed. Most of our mountains no longer have trees on them because we have cut them down. But now things are spoilt and we have to live with it. We need to think deeper. Generations are still coming and what will they have? There won’t even be trees for firewood or for building houses.”
Most of the villagers attribute the change to a very evident problem closer to home: “I think the rainfall is becoming unpredictable because we have cut down trees to burn charcoal,” says Paulo Mkaka (68). Across Malawi, vast swathes have become a scarred wasteland of tree stumps felled for firewood, for making charcoal and firing of bricks for houses.
As the climate has changed and crops have failed, many people have been forced to turn to the forests for a source of income. Trucks with Tanzanian number plates load up piles of logs at the roadside, and villagers mutter angrily that these are to be shipped from Dar es Salaam to China.
“We get less crops which means we end up cutting more trees to sell because we can’t grow enough food to eat,” says Mkaka. A lack of alternative employment just adds to the problem, says
Tereza Makowa (45) is worried about the Shire River which is just 500m from her fields. “Our river was deep but now it is shallow. Before you would need a very long bamboo to paddle a canoe but now you can use a short paddle. We are afraid it may dry up altogether.” The changes in the river mean it is also more prone to flooding, dumping huge amounts of water from areas upstream, even when it hasn’t rained in Balaka. “In the past there were areas that got flooded once in ten years, and then it was an event, something people would talk about for a long time. Now it floods every year since 2002. The water is coming much higher and even the crocodiles come up into our croplands, so we cannot walk around freely.”
The last flood was in March this year, and spelled devastation for the farmers. “The rainy season was over and we had planted our seeds. One night it flooded without warning even though it hadn’t rained here. All our crops were washed away. I had planted maize, okra and peas but I was left with nothing at all. I had to buy more seeds from the market and I didn’t have money for that, so I had to go work in someone else’s fields. When the water receded I planted again but that crop didn’t do well, because then there was drought,” says Mary Zuze (54) “It is a disaster to lose a whole crop. Total disaster!”
Balaka is also on a major trucking route, and many women are driven by hunger to sell sex to the drivers who are en route to Beira or Zomba. “Poverty and HIV are the same thing, says Makowa. “Most women don’t have anything else to sell, so they sell sex. In our project we encourage each other to work hard and not take those shortcuts to get food and money, because we know they will lead us to death.”
”Women are the worst affected because we have the responsibility to take care of our children and husbands and make sure they have food. A man can take the money and go out and drink and eat wherever they like but a woman cannot do that. She must feed her children.”
“HIV prevalence in this area is 18 to 20 percent, compared to a national average of about 14 percent,” says Elastro Milimbo, manager of the Balaka Livelihood Security programme. His aim is not just to ensure people have enough food, but that they are not forced to engage in risky behaviour to survive.
As we leave Chambulika.asks us to join the group in prayer. We have told him about the upcoming Copenhagen climate change negotiations and he feels divine intervention with world leaders is the only solution: “Dear Father, please help those people to have open hearts, so they can hear and understand what is happening to us. Please Daddy, tell them your children in Malawi are suffering and we need help. You know we cannot go on like this. Amen.”