Malawi’s food security hinges on irrigation

Whether Malawi needs rain to be food secure is a question that can be food for thought for everyone.

Minister of Agriculture Dr Allan Chiyembekeza (c) being briefed on the Solar-powered irrigation - pic by Gladys Kamakanda
Minister of Agriculture Dr Allan Chiyembekeza (c) being briefed on the Solar-powered irrigation – pic by Gladys Kamakanda

Food demand in Malawi has been increasing steadily because of the increase in population.

In addition, droughts cause yield reduction and food shortages.

President Peter Mutharika told the nation on the Status of Food in September last year that close to 2 million people had no food to take them to the next growing season.

The country is currently failing to meet its food requirements, particularly in cereals.

Between 2007 and 2008 Malawi produced more maize made history by exporting maize to other countries.

How did the country manage? Was it due to good rainfall or there was something new that happened?

On 23rdMay, 2011 during the opening of the 2011/2012 budget meeting in Lilongwe, the late Professor Bingu Wa Mutharika said Greenbelt Irrigation and Water Development was an important policy intervention to sustain food security in Malawi.

The late former Malawi leader said when fully implemented, Greenbelt Initiative could change development paradigm of the country.

He said this could only be achieved by reducing over-dependence on rain-fed agriculture.

“As I have said before Mr. Speaker, Sir, the Green Belt Initiative is intended to cover close to a million hectares of land. We have mobilized resources to kick-start implementation of the Greenbelt Initiative.

“To date, we have allocated K2 billion from government budget and a line of credit amounting to $15 million (K4 Billion) has been obtained from the Government of India. In the 2010/2011 financial year, 2,824 hectares of land were developed under irrigation.

“Since the programme started, about 43,000 hectares have been developed of which 40,784 hectares are under irrigation, benefiting over 356,728 farming families. Government also rehabilitated smallholder irrigation schemes such as Nkhate in Chikhwawa; Muona in Nsanje; Limphasa in Nkhata Bay and Likangala in Zomba, covering a total of 1,797 hectares,” said late Bingu Mutharika.

About 20 percent of Malawi total area is covered by surface water bodies that can be used to grow different crops.

Recently, World Vision Malawi (WVM) called on Malawi Government and its residents to use of water from the Shire River saying Malawi does not need rain to be food secure, but water from various sources.

WVM National Director Robert Kisyula made the call in Chikwawa district in October when government launched 2015-2016 food distribution exercise that will run from October 2015 to March 2016.

Kisyula said it was pathetic to see the country experience hunger almost every year despite having a lot of water in the Shire.

“It is high time Malawi started doing things differently in order to alleviate shortage of food. There is a lot of water in the Shire River, but you find there is shortage of food every year, why?

“Let me say that people have been saying now and again that Malawi experiences hunger due to insufficient rain. I am of the contrary view because to grow maize or other crops you do not need rain but you need water.

“Whether water is brought by tractors, donkeys or people using buckets, it matters less because we need water to grow our crops not rain. So why do we fail to use water from the Shire River,” wondered Kisyula.

He said people in Chikwawa need to change their mindset and take advantage of irrigation.

Kisyula said World Vision Malawi is ready to work with Malawi Government and other stakeholders in order to build capacity of Malawians so that they can produce their own food for the whole year.

Kisyula then blamed the cutting down of trees as a major factor that has changed the climate which in turn is affecting crop yield and causing hunger.

While acknowledging that what Kisyula said is true, Bernard Sande, Principal Secretary at the Department of Disaster Management Affairs of the Government of Malawi (DoDMA) said government has plans already in place to ensure that water in the Shire Valley is used for producing food.

Sande said Greenbelt Initiative has proved that using water can make the country to produce more food than just waiting for rain-fed agriculture.

Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, Dr Allan Chiyembekeza said during the official opening of the 12th National Agriculture Fair at Chichiri Trade Fair Grounds in Blantyre in August last year that government was putting in place measures to vigorously promote the Greenbelt Initiative which was active during late Professor Bingu wa Mutharika’s era.

He said climate change affects the future of agriculture in this country, noting that the last year floods and the dry spells that our country experienced in the last agricultural season is a wakeup call for Malawi to double efforts to manage effects of climate change.

“In order to deal with challenges related to overreliance on rain-fed agricultural production system, government has taken measures to revive the Greenbelt Initiative which aims at intensifying irrigation farming in different localities along Lake Malawi and other perennial rivers.

“The initiative will ensure that we get good crop harvest under irrigation and the possibility of getting two or more harvests in a year because our dream is to make Malawi a food basket for Africa,” he said.

He urged all players in the agriculture sector to be innovative and consider adapting to the changing environment by using modern technologies.

But despite government emphasizing promotion of irrigation farming through the Greenbelt Initiative the situation is different on the ground as the initiative is not fully operational due to inadequate funding.

Financial challenge is the main contributing factor slowing progress of the project as evidenced by 2014/15 financial year where K2 billion was allocated for the initiative but only K400 million was paid out.

Prospects for the rainy season in 2016 are uncertain because of the current El Nino, which is expected to cause wetter than average conditions in the north and drier than average conditions in the south.

Currently there is fear of hunger in Malawi due to food shortages, a long drought and other effects of El Nino being experienced.

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Stacia Nordin
6 years ago

So much wrong with this article – please send a message back though the system to the reporter, to the MoAIWD and to WVM that irrigation is fine, but we can’t blame just the rains and just cutting trees and one of the biggest biggest problems with food security is maize dependency, and is probably the biggest problem of all. This article misses: Water harvesting / Soil health – Every drop of water everywhere needs to be harvested and used – look around you today and every day where water is wasted and do as much as you can about… Read more »

6 years ago

Mr Sande, having plans is one thing and delivering based on that plan is another. Plans have been there for ages, but development partners are saying, lest go out and implement the plans

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