Disaster looms for Malawi – Now is the time to act

As the sun reflected off the world’s ninth largest lake and fisherman cast their bait in the early hours of the morning, several hundred miles to the south, families were scrambling to ensure their own survival as raging floods wreaked havoc on Malawi’s population. Tropical cyclone Ana had arrived.

Tearing through southern Africa, Ana destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes across countries including Malawi, Mozambique, and Madagascar. With over 30 known deaths so far, 150 injuries, 20 missing people, and over 1 million affected overall, Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera had no option but to declare a State of Emergency in the country.

Just a few months earlier ahead of the COP 26 climate change summit in Glasgow where Malawi chaired the UN Least Developed Countries Group and Southern Africa Development Community, Chakwera publicly warned of such devastating natural disasters increasing over time.

‘If you have more floods, that’s more death. If we have more droughts, that’s more death. If we have cyclones, it’s more dead. So it’s death, death, death’ the country’s President asserted.

This is not the first and will not be the last time the region has been so hard-hit by a natural disaster. In 2019 for instance, Cyclone Idai killed over 1,000 people across Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, affecting more than 3 million people in total. Two years on from this disaster, many people are still living in temporary shelters caused by Idai as Ana hit.

Catalysed by global climatic change leading to increased sea temperatures and levels, as well as global temperatures, anthropogenic climate change is resulting in an increased frequency of dramatic natural weather phenomena including tropical cyclones, hurricanes, and drought according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report released in 2021.

One of the most unjust and pressing issues of our time, multiple reports draw attention to the fact that those contributing the least to global emissions suffer the most. Not only is this true today, but as temperatures continue to rise, the impacts are only going to worsen, with hundreds of millions around the world at risk from seeing their livelihood utterly destroyed.

The IPCC’s report last year issued a stark warning of the likely impacts of continuing temperature rises for countries in Africa. Specifically, for the continent’s south-eastern region encompassing Malawi, the IPCC projects an increase of average tropical cyclone wind speeds and associated heavy precipitation, combined with the proportion of category 4-5 tropical cyclones to increase in frequency.

Disaster looms for Malawi and other countries like it in Africa and beyond, especially considering the precarious nature both geographically and economically that the country is in. Much of the country, particularly in southern regions like Nsanje is less than 200ft above sea-level, meaning that they are extremely prone to flooding.

Moreover, for a country heavily-reliant on agriculture not just for exports, but also for feeding its population, flooding and drought threaten to destroy vital crops such as maize throughout Malawi. Storm Ana has destroyed almost 600,000 hectares of arable farmland predominantly in the South, and this is notably concerning given the large amount of the population facing food insecurity on a daily basis.

Maize, for instance, is grown by over 90% of farm households and accounts for over 60% of calorie consumption. Over 1 million people in the country experience acute levels of food insecurity with a further 3.6 million facing some degree of food insecurity according to data from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

‘Southern African countries have been repeatedly struck by severe storms and cyclones in recent years that have impacted food security, destroyed livelihoods, and displaced large numbers of people’ a spokesperson for the World Food Programme emphasises.

Increasing natural disasters will catalyse existing food insecurity issues and will require the international community to do more to help those most in-need of assistance. Indirect effects such as the spreading of disease and loss of education as schools are forced to close are also key issues one cannot ignore.

The unjustness of the issue at-hand is both visible and quantifiable. Regions that emit the most greenhouse gases, both per-capita and as a whole like the United States, are economic powerhouses and have the resources to adapt to the issue. An average US citizen, for instance, releases 15.52 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually, compared with under 0.1 tonnes for a Malawian citizen according to 2019 data.

A country like Malawi relies almost extensively on foreign aid and assistance when such an event strikes. As countries around the world continue to grapple with the ongoing pandemic and reduce their foreign aid commitments, the situation is only set to worsen for citizens in countries like Malawi.

The World Bank has reiterated the situation faced in Malawi, and in its most compelling and yet devastating prediction to-date noted worrying trends in its advanced modelling data. Malawi remains among the organisation’s top 10 nations worldwide to be worst affected by climate change.

‘All models consistently project increases in the proportion of rainfall that falls in heavy events in the annual average of up to 19 percent by the 2090’s’ the report noted.

As Lake Malawi continues to shrink in size and storms increasing in both frequency and severity devastate some of the world’s most vulnerable people, the future is bleak for Malawi in terms of the effects of climate change.

The country is calling for help from the international community to both mitigate global emissions and help provide financial assistance not only after, but indeed before such a disaster strikes.

***Op-Ed by James Woods, an award-winning African who works on governance issues, reputation management, and strategic communications.

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