Restoring Lands and Livelihoods in Malawi

In areas where access to clean water is as simple as the turn of a faucet, World Water Day (WWD) might seem like an insignificant event to commemorate. But a growing number of cities and countries across the globe face a host of challenges related to droughts, floods and water pollution. In fact, by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in places where the water supply will not meet the demand. (WHO)

Project Concern International (PCI) understands the transformative power of this precious resource and has spent years integrating water, sanitation and hygiene interventions within its programs across countries. Recognizing how access to clean water is inseparable from food security and nutrition, PCI works to prevent flooding, reduce the impact of drought and reduce conditions associated with the spread of disease, among other initiatives.

As this year’s WWD theme focuses on exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges we face in the 21st century, take a moment to learn about PCI’s efforts to bring lands, livelihoods and communities back to life through the USAID-funded Njira project in Malawi.

Cultivating Resilience, One Season at a Time

The majority of farmers in Malawi are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and due to the effects of drought and a changing climate, their livelihoods are at risk. Irregular weather patterns including erratic rainfall, extended dry seasons, and increased pest and disease pressures rob farmers of consistent food and income security.

In Balaka and Machinga districts in southern Malawi, individual farmers began to tackle this challenge by implementing small scale irrigation. Most farmers resort to labor-intensive practices such as carrying buckets of water for long distances to irrigate their crops. These efforts, however, do little to help them produce enough food for household consumption or aid them in making the leap to more profitable commercial farming.

After becoming aware of this issue, the Njira project worked to enhance the efforts of 58 communities in Balaka and Machinga by establishing expanded and improved irrigation schemes. Njira irrigation schemes are supporting 1,869 farmers to become resilient to the environmental and economic impacts of climate change while also progressing toward commercial farming.

Nanthomba farmers celebrate

Nanthomba farmers celebrate a successful irrigation season with song and dance.

Since 2015, farmers from the Nanthomba community in Balaka have received capacity building on developing, operating and maintaining irrigation equipment. They have also received start-up inputs to boost their production. Having just completed their second irrigation season, farmers in the Nanthomba irrigation group are producing enough food to feed their families throughout the entire year for the first time. Furthermore, irrigation farmers are diversifying the diets of their children and experiencing increased incomes thanks to better yields and higher value crops such as tomatoes, beans, various greens, potatoes and carrots.

“There used to be not enough food available to eat before we went to sleep, but these new methods of farming give us enough food to make sure we don’t go to bed hungry,” Kingston Jambo said.

Farmers’ transition from subsistence farming to commercial farming is also benefiting the private sector. Agro-dealers and seed and fertilizer companies are capitalizing on new market opportunities by supplying farmers with more inputs, while restaurants and food processors can now access a consistent supply of diverse foods during the dry season directly from farmers.

Having seen the positive impact of irrigation on their lives, farmers are actively forging a path to ensure irrigation schemes will continue operating sustainable after the Njira project phases out. Community members are mobilizing themselves to expand irrigated land, collectively buying more irrigation materials, digging new shallow wells and marketing harvests to increase incomes in larger, more profitable markets.

Breaking the Cycle of Destruction

The Chilanga River runs through the heart of Kadzuwa village. For the last 22 years, the river has experienced extensive siltation, which has led to the surrounding area being plagued by flooding every rainy season. This yearly cycle of destruction has forced several community members to abandon their homes and move to safer locations.

These households are mostly owned by subsistence farmers whose only source of income comes from the land. When the river overflows, their crops are destroyed along with huge losses in livestock such as chicken, goats and cattle. Sanitary facilities are often destroyed as well, which poses dangerous health risks including diseases like cholera.

River Bank Stabilization Project_Malawi

A total of 150 community members from the Kadzuwa village worked to stabilize the banks of the Chilanga River.

To combat these issues, the Njira project initiated the River Bank Stabilization Project through its Food for Asset (FFA) program. Food rations provided an incentive to mobilize and recruit community members to help build the integrity of the river.

A total of 150 community members received training on riverbank stabilization and worked over a period of 60 days to secure the Chilanga River. Together, they removed silt from the riverbed, filled empty food distribution bags with the unwanted silt and strategically placed the bags in targeted areas to structurally improve the riverbanks and keep the river on its intended course.

To date, community members have repaired 1,100 meters of the riverbank and the project has proven to have an incredible return on investment. Apart from being protected from potential disease outbreaks and the damaging effects of flooding, community members are experiencing economic benefits. For example, 25 acres of land that was previously unusable for cultivation has now been reclaimed and is being used by landowners as farmland. The additional farmland has collectively raised the maize harvest by 33,000 pounds, with the equivalent value of $2,482.

“It has not happened in the past where a household could harvest more than one bag of maize from this land, but now we have managed to harvest 15 bags,” said Wisiki Kalembo, one of the local farmers.

Community members, having experienced the first year without flooding in 22 years, are continuing with efforts to further strengthen the riverbank and prevent the build-up of siltation using their own resources. As of November 2017, they were in the process of repairing an additional stretch of 600 meters with only technical consulting support from the Njira project.

Planting Seeds of Sustainability

For the past decade, the Khole community in the Machinga district has experienced long dry seasons and erratic rainfall. Shocks such as the El Niño weather in 2016 devastated the region’s crops. Coupld this with deforestation and falling water tables, and water has become a scarce resource in this farming community.

Year after year, this shortage has forced residents to travel long distances to retrieve water for domestic and agricultural uses. Irrigation was almost impossible as the rivers would dry up quickly, and the one area that has a wetland was not utilized because of the high speed at which the water would pass.

The Njira project introduced a community watershed initiative through its Food for Asset program. Working with the village, community members formed a watershed committee and laid out a plan on how to tackle the challenge, including taking measurements and assigning specific people to the work.

Khole watershed treatment

Members of the Khole community in Machinga district covered 229 hectares with watershed treatments like these stone bunds.

So far, nearly 2,100 Khole watershed members have managed to cover 229 hectares with continuous contour trenches, water absorption trenches, gully plugs, stone bunds and check dams within 7 months.

Since June 2017, the community has established a tree nursery shed to ensure that the trees grow in a controlled environment. They have also grown vetiver grass in their fields and along the watershed treatments and worked on over 21 hectares making continuous contour trenches, water absorption trenches and gully plugs.

To ensure sustainability of their initiative, community members have planted fruit trees and natural trees in their fields and engaged in income-generating activities like beekeeping and the formation of Village Savings Groups. So far, the community has made 34 bee hives, of which 15 have already been colonized.

“This initiative will act as a cushion if there is no rains, because we will still have money and still buy food for the year,” said Jamali, a member of the watershed committee.

Tanner Roark contributed to this story.