Climate change squeezing Malawi’s maize production

Floods affect Malawi's development

Despite Malawi registering surplus maize yields in recent years, food production in the southern African nation has been on the decline, a climate change study has indicated. Malawi has in the past six years basked in the glory of maize surpluses that came about partly because of the implementation of the world acclaimed Farm Input Subsidy Programme and favourable rains falling on the heels of serious droughts between 1978 and 2005 growing seasons that resulted in crop failures and low yields. According to an IMF report, the droughts were evidence of famine that was triggered mainly by failure of the rain-bearing systems during the critical planting season. Rainfall distribution in Malawi has become more unpredictable to the extent that it has reduced crop production, Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development hydrologist Henrie Manford Njoloma has disclosed in his research study of over 60 years of rainfall data in the sub Saharan country. “Rainfall distribution is no longer uniform and predictable as it used to be in the past,” he says noting that maize, the country’s staple diet has been drastically affected by the erratic rainfall patterns.

Njoloma notes that the reliance on rain to produce maize for the national consumption has become Malawi’s great challenge with the main producers of the staple diet being smallholder farmers whose land holding size averages 0.3 ha. Malawi’s food production is mainly from rain-fed agriculture with maize produced by about 97% of all farming house-holds. “When rains fail there is less maize production therefore creating economic problems in the national economy despite maize not being categorized as an economic crop,” he points out. Says Njoloma: “Every year that food insecurity has been declared as a national problem in Malawi by the authorities, rainfall has been erratic causing droughts, dry spells besides flooding during critical grain filling stages”. Maize is a highly politicized crop in Malawi because of its nature as a main food crop. As such, government interferes either directly or indirectly in its production and trade at all levels. The private sector also responds sharply whenever there is a maize shortage. Malawi faces food insecurity problems despite having a lot of water resources in sub-Saharan region. It has Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest lake, which takes up 20% of its land mass and is mostly in the central and northern parts of the country. There are smaller lakes of Chilwa and Malombe in the south and many rivers across the country. Njoloma’s research focused on the Lilongwe River catchment area which is located in the south-west of the central region of Malawi.

The central region, like the other parts of the country, has good geographical features which includes good climate and rich soils for agricultural production and contributes a major share of national maize yield. The estimated area representing the catchment stretches up to the confluence in the lakeshore district of Salima measuring 4,940 km2 and the Linthipe River sub-catchment which accounts for 3,936 km2 area. The water scientist says his study used the total national annual maize production figures from 1961 to 2007 and monthly rainfall data from 1949 to 2005. “An assessment of the changing pattern of the rainfall on a daily basis during both periods was also carried out by assessing the dry spells,” he says observing that the duration of dry spells and their length of occurrence during the rainy seasons of the two study periods were counted and analyzed considering that maize crop is sensitive to and critically affected by their duration and time of occurrence during specific physiological growth periods. He says the available national annual maize production from 1961 to 2007 was assessed and a comparison was made between the rain-fall trend and the annual maize production between the two study periods. The study shows that the rainfall trend observed in the early part of the past half century indicates a fairly uniform trend during the planting season (rainy summer season) as represented by the 1962-1963 rainfall patterns than the last part of the half century as evidenced in 2002-2003.

Njoloma says that the onset of the rains which triggers early season maize planting in Malawi had been in November but has recently shifted to mid December. The monthly rainfall averages in the early part of the observation period (1949-1959) also show that the rains were normal by November to support a good onset of maize planting and throughout the season. On the other hand, the later observation period (1995 to 2005) indicates the rainfall onset varied from October to December. “Rainfall fluctuation is greater in recent years than in the earlier years,” says Njoloma adding that “Comparison of the simulated areal rainfall between periods 1961-1966 and 2000-2005 also indicates that rainfall pattern has greatly changed”. He says the daily simulated areal rainfall also shows a shift in the onset of the first planting dates commencing in October/November during 1961-1966 rainfall seasons unlike during the later period (2000 to 2005) when the first effective rains varied greatly between November and December with many areas experiencing adequate planting rains mostly in December. “This has rendered planning and maize agronomy decision-making difficult at all levels of the farming community resulting into poor maize yields,” says the scientist pointing out that the rainfall seasons in the early half of the century generally ended with gradual decreasing rainfall rates in April/May which was good for maize maturity, drying and shunning rotting and wastage. In the later half century, the rains are ending at very erratic rates and mostly at unpredictable times mostly between March and April with the final season rainfall rates being excessively too high, and in many cases causing flash floods and landslides and, hence, making harvesting difficult and causing losses due to rotting. “The rainy seasons had shorter periods of dry spells during the 1961-1966 period, but the later period, 2000 to 2005, experienced frequent longer than normal dry spells,” he says noting that the dry spells occur at critical times when the physiological maize growth and maturation is critical and dependent on adequate soil moisture for a satisfactory grain yield production.

Njoloma observes that despite maize output increasing by 1.8% per annum between 1961 and 1991, the yields have been lower than the 5-year annual average of 2,192,634 metric tons in the first three years, albeit increasing to above the 5-year average in the later years. The hydrologist says that the rainfall pattern in these rainfall seasons were some of the worst, punctuated with many longer than normal dry spells. He also notes that the production of maize per unit area also had increased. Government documents suggest that about 75% of the estimated increase in total production resulted from the expansion in maize area but does not indicate the role of favorable climatic conditions. “Overall, yields appear to have increased at a small but significant rate of 0.4% per year,” says Njoloma adding, “The per capita maize production, however, declined over the past half century as production lagged behind an exponential annual population growth rate of over 3.0%”. Njoloma notes that apart from climatic conditions other factors that have contributed to declined crop production problems in the southern African country include unsustainable agricultural practices, de-industrialization with the reintegration of South Africa into the SADC regional economy, political instability and governance problems. “The short-term behavior of aid donors also contributes to the volatility of public finances,” he says adding to the list the effects of HIV/AIDS on human resources.

The water resource expert observes that Malawi heavily relies on rain-fed agriculture for food and economic production activities instead of maximising other water resource potential such as irrigation which he says can create a more predictable agricultural production regime. He notes that the existing irrigation schemes tend to maximize production in the rainy (wet) season instead of the winter (dry) season when production is very unreliable and unpredictable. “This, despite existence of many water resources, are not exploited to full potential as rainy seasonal dry spell only needs supplemental irrigation while dry season maize production requires a full irrigation supply,” he says adding; “Absence of dams for irrigation to capture rainwater and redistribute during dry spells has also aggravated the situation of lack of water for irrigated agriculture. “There is hardly any inter basin water transfer techniques explored to see if the low flow streams could benefit from the high stream flows of adjacent basins to enable farmers in dry catchments to have access to sufficient water for maize production,” he says. Irrigation systems in the country are mainly dedicated to tea, coffee, sugarcane and rice production. However, the water scientist observes that the irrigation systems available to the majority of maize producing smallholder farmers are so rudimentary that they have little or no capacity to prevent impacts of erratic rainfall and dry spells during the main cropping season. Njoloma advises that it would have been better if government established a state run company to coordinate irrigation activities so that grain production and food security issues are placed at the lowest level and in the hands of the farmers themselves.

He observes that various water schemes gather dust on the drawing board while less than 1% of the country is irrigated. According to a 2004-2005 Integrated Household Survey (IHS) report, modern methods of irrigation are almost nonexistent in most households in Malawi. “There has been low priority in irrigation agricultural production despite the increased publicity the sector has been given over the past 15 years,” notes the hydrologist urging government to initiate efforts that would ensure that rainfalls into the country’s catchments are looked at to recharge water resources such as wetlands, rivers, dams and lakes. “With the right infrastructure and proper institutions in place, erratic rainfall trends could easily be mitigated and maize grain shortages would be avoided,” he says pointing out at the need for functional catchment based water resources institutions that would assist in ensuring water distribution equity to users. “Such institutions are essential when planning any intra-rainy season water resource rescue plans for farmers whose crops may be at risk from bad rainfall,” he says adding that such institutions would buffer water shortages during dry spells. A strong investment in water resources in general and irrigation infrastructure in particular can adequately surmount the pressures of buying maize externally when there is a drought, Njoloma concludes.

© 2012, Charles Mkula. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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1 comment

  1. Having farmed in Malawi for 15 years, the article should stress more on the critical points of soil health, water management and agricultural diversity.

    Malawians (and many others in the world) are causing their own grief with the way they treat their most important resources.

    The widespread burning, cutting, over-sweeping, clogging the landscape with plastics, use of chemicals, mono-cropping maize, lack of land tenure and lack of farm planning need to be addressed.

    Just adding irrigation is not enough, we must start taking care of our world, together.

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