Malawi’s reliance on climate-sensitive, rain-fed agriculture makes it one of the most vulnerable countries of sub-Saharan Africa to the threat of climate change.
Not only do extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, regularly leave thousands of people homeless and destroy precious crops, but they also have a serious and long long-lasting impact on food, water security and the sustainable livelihoods of rural communities, trapping millions in a cycle of vulnerability and hunger.
In 2012 and 2013, two major floods struck the Nsanje and Mangochi districts of Malawi, affecting many people and washing away large swathes of agricultural fields.
Two years later, devastating floods again swamped large areas of the country, sweeping away 356,643 village huts, killing livestock, destroying key infrastructure and more than 64,000 hectares of agricultural fields.
According to the national government’s Malawi 2015 Floods Post Disaster Needs Assessment Report, “the January 2015 rainfall was the highest on record for Malawi and constitutes a 1 in 500 year event, and caused significant flooding, exacerbating an already precarious situation for rural households in this region”.
More than 1.1 million people were affected, 230,000 sought refuge in displacement camps, 176 were killed and 172 were reported missing.
As a result, the president declared a state of disaster in 15 of the 28 districts, including many of the poorest regions of the country. Nsanje was one of the worst hit.
Rute Fumulani lost both her parents when the 2015 flood struck the village of Kachaso in Nsanje district.
It was the middle of the night and as the waters rose, she woke to hear people shouting. Her parents were trying to save some possessions and their animals so Rute went with some elders to a primary school on higher ground where a camp had been set up for survivors. She didn’t see her parents again.
“I don’t know what happened to them, I don’t have any information about where they are now. So I just concluded that both of them passed away during the floods,” she says.
Families could get assistance but those on their own had to survive on scraps.
“Other people were giving me leftovers from their meals. I didn’t even have anything to eat with, like a cup, a plate or a spoon. Life was very difficult,”
After four days, she met Fumulani. He was in a similar situation, and trying to look after his younger brother and sister.
“I was having problems, he was having problems also. So we decided to come together to help each other.
“I was all by myself and that’s what prompted me to accept when he came to ask my hand in marriage.
“The first night of our marriage we didn’t sleep together, but he wanted to. For three days he kept asking. And because a man is man, he overpowered me and I didn’t have a choice but just to accept. So it happened. But it was very painful.
“I managed to cope with that after some time, because that struggle with my husband didn’t only happen after three days. It happened for a longer period because I was not ready to continue sleeping with him. But he was more powerful and it kept on happening up until I said it’s OK.
“After that we got closer, we sat down and talked about what happened previously. I was still a kid and I didn’t know what happens in a marriage, so that is why there was a struggle. So we talked and forgave each other.”
Rute is 16 now. The couple have a son, Thokozani, a little over a year old and live in a two room hut with her husband’s nine year old brother, Eliya, and five year old sister, Amines. They earn a maximum of MWK 500 (about 50p) on days they can find work and eat only on three days a week.
Rute’s dreams of finishing school and becoming a nurse are long gone.
All she can hope is that their luck changes and her son fares better. But when she looks around at what is happening in the village, it is hard to be optimistic.
“Parents are struggling to support the children due to extreme weather conditions. Some parents are trying hard to make it, but because of dry spells they are not harvesting enough for the households. And also because of other weather related problems which are causing the harvest to not be enough, there is also poverty.
“In the past years, the rains for planting were expected in October. But that has changed lately because now the rains come usually in December. And even when the rains start coming, in the first weeks, there is excessive rain. Then a dry spell follows. The dry spells make the plants unable to survive and that is also what is preventing the households harvesting enough.
“I blame no one for the changes in the climate but myself. The climate change has come because of us as people, rampant cutting down of trees has contributed much to climate change, also carbon emission has affected climate change. So I blame and point a finger at myself and the people for the rampant cutting down of trees.”
“Rampant cutting down of trees has provoked these changes in weather. Even cutting down of trees around rivers causes floods, because the water just moves in, there is nothing to stop it.”
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In the nearby village of Malakeza, Charity Lloyd also found herself in a camp after the flooding. Her father had died a few years earlier; now her mother succumbed too.
She was 17 and on her own. So she resolved to find herself a husband. Two years later, she and Chuva, 23, have a one year old daughter, Eveless, and few prospects.
“When I was little I dreamed of higher education. I really wanted to go to school, to be a part of everything,” she says. “In a community, preference goes to those who can read and write. So I wanted to go to school so that I could be a part of the life of the community.”
Instead, she and Chuvu can barely grow enough food to feed themselves, leave alone pay for her to resume her education. That dream is over.
“It is an effect of climate change, the weather conditions are not allowing us to harvest enough for the family because the rainfall is not enough for the harvesting and there are also continued dry spells,” she says.