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Irish aid worker: Malawi faces existential threat from climate change

An Irish aid worker living in Malawi has said that climate change is posing an “existential threat” that could leave parts of the country uninhabitable if temperatures keep rising.

Conor Kelly, who is from Clane in Co Kildare, has lived in the landlocked country in the south-east of Africa with his family for the past few years.

As the small, poor country grapples with an increase in major disaster events such as cyclones and flooding, Mr Kelly said there was a need for more empathy towards people vulnerable to climate challenges.

“Cyclone Idai happened pretty much when I arrived in 2019,” the programmes manager in Malawi for Irish charity Trocaire said of the second-deadliest tropical cyclone to hit the southern hemisphere.

“The evidence is clear – climate change is impacting Malawi,” he told the PA news agency.

“They are one of the top 10 countries who have been impacted by climate change and that will only continue to get worse unless action is taken, unless we all take action.”

A view of a fishing community on the shores of Lake Chilwa in the Machinga district of Malawi (Brian Lawless/PA)
A view of a fishing community on the shores of Lake Chilwa in the Machinga district of Malawi (Brian Lawless/PA)

Around three quarters of Malawi’s 21 million strong population rely on agriculture, meaning if crops fail, people go hungry.

Over four million people are food insecure in Malawi according to its government, and depending on the harvest yield in the next few months, this could double to eight million.

Mr Kelly said some climate change related events in Europe, such as the 2021 floods in Germany and forest fires in Portugal last year, have “helped to turn the needle” on how climate change is viewed in the global north.

He added: “I think if there was one million people food insecure in Ireland, I think you’d see a lot of action being taken then, while the fact that people are food insecure in Malawi due to climate change, maybe it doesn’t bring about the action as quickly.”

Changing weather patterns have also made it difficult for Malawian farmers, who mostly grow the food that they eat, to know when to farm.

Conor Kelly, Trocaire Malawi’s programme manager, at the Department of Disaster Management Affairs offices in Capital Hill. (Brian Lawless/PA)
Conor Kelly, Trocaire Malawi’s programme manager, at the Department of Disaster Management Affairs offices in Capital Hill. (Brian Lawless/PA)

Last year, the deadly and powerful Cyclone Freddy flooded the south of the country and a drought hit the north. But this year, the south had dry spells in February at a crucial time during the rainy season.

“It’s much, much, much, much, much harder for communities to know what the weather will be – when the rains will start, when they will end, how consistent they will be,” Mr Kelly said.

“Before, times were tough but at least you knew with more certainty when the rains would start and when they will finish. But now it’s so much more difficult.”

Farmer Malita Mussa is a single mother-of-six who lives in the Machinga district in southern Malawi.

Malita Mussa holds a malformed maize cob outside her home in the village of Manduwasa (Brian Lawless/PA)
Malita Mussa holds a malformed maize cob outside her home in the village of Manduwasa (Brian Lawless/PA)

She said that her maize crop yield last year was “a bit off”, but this year it is expected to be much worse.

“I expect to harvest one bag, while in the previous years I would have got six bags,” Malita said, speaking through an interpreter.

Malita, who has four children still living at home, said it may mean going from two meals a day to one, or going days without food.

The woman and her two youngest children, 13-year-old twins Patrick and Patricia, feature on this year’s Trocaire box as part of the Irish charity’s Lenten appeal.

Malita Mussa and her thirteen-year-old twins Patrick (left) and Patricia who appear on this year’s Trocaire box (Brian Lawless/PA)
Malita Mussa and her thirteen-year-old twins Patrick (left) and Patricia who appear on this year’s Trocaire box (Brian Lawless/PA)

Asked by the PA news agency what she would say to farmers in Ireland who might be reluctant to make changes to reduce Ireland’s carbon emissions, she said: “To my friends who are also farmers in Ireland, I’m in deep pain and really worried” due to reduced yields and dry spells.

“I wonder if they could manage and cope with the climate change effects as well as I have.

“If they could withstand the kind of weather patterns that I face in my community.”

She said that she employs good farming practices, diversifying her crops so that her family have an alternative if the main ones are badly affected.

Speaking through an interpreter, she added: “I’m urging farmers that they should take part and they should adapt.

“I am encouraging the farmers in Ireland to adapt to the new practices so that they all fight together in reducing climate change.”

During the rainy season, Malita’s village is surrounded by the deep green hues of the mountains, maize and rice fields and banana, mango and guava trees.

But at the end of this year’s rainy season, the fields are pockmarked by wilting crops.

The beautiful remoteness of the village also causes its problems – after Cyclone Freddy hit in March last year, the village was rendered inaccessible.

Agnes Jafali tends to seedlings in a tree nursery in the flooding-prone regions around Lake Chilwa (Brian Lawless/PA)
Agnes Jafali tends to seedlings in a tree nursery in the flooding-prone regions around Lake Chilwa (Brian Lawless/PA)

In the communities around Lake Chilwa, farmers say they have not recovered completely from Cyclone Freddy.

Agnes Misomali, a maize and rice farmer, said that the 2023 cyclone has meant her crop yield this year is reduced.

She had expected more plantlets, but they had been affected by topsoil being washed away when water ran down the steep mountainside and through the village.

She said she worries for her children’s future.

As part of humanitarian efforts, Malawians are being encouraged to diversify their crops to grow the tuber cassava, sweet potatoes and pigeon peas.

They have also encouraged communities to plant trees and not cut them down for fuel, with the aim of anchoring the soil.

Help is also offered to locals who patrol Lake Chilwa to prevent illegal fishing. In 2015, the lake completely dried out, which led to the loss of most species of fish – putting more pressure on another vital food source.

A man displays fish on the shores of Lake Chilwa (Brian Lawless/PA)
A man displays fish on the shores of Lake Chilwa (Brian Lawless/PA)

Rising temperatures in southern Malawi due to climate change are also making it more difficult for people to remain in their hometowns, while expanding lakes and rivers from flooding mean farmers have lost land.

As temperatures rise in the south of the country, in its fourth biggest city and former capital Zomba, malaria is spreading more regularly than before.

“In a way, it’s an existential threat to certain areas of southern Malawi because if (rising temperatures) continue, people will not be able to live in those areas,” Mr Kelly said.

“So the people in Nsanje and Chikwawa that we are working with, if temperatures continue to rise, it’ll just be too hot for people to live there. They won’t be able to live where they lived for the whole of their lives.”

People moving from their hometowns because of climate change is “inevitable”, said Peter Chimangeni of Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs.

“Already we have seen the numbers of internally displaced people increasing,” he said, adding that around 450,000 people were displaced due to Cyclone Freddy last year.

Peter Chimangeni, of the Malawian government’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Brian Lawless/PA)
Peter Chimangeni, of the Malawian government’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Brian Lawless/PA)

Agnes Jafali, a 54-year-old grandmother, grows maize and rice to feed herself and her family.

Having lived through Cyclone Freddy, she feels lucky to be alive despite it washing her crops away.

A year on, when heavy rain falls or or when the wind blows strongly, she still fears that it is a sign of another powerful cyclone.

Asked what she would say to people who might say such events are just changing weather, or even “God’s doing”, she said she believes some things are human’s handiwork.

“People might say climate change is God’s doing,” she said, speaking through an interpreter.

“But for me, no. Sometimes it’s our handwork which brings us such changes, and we are not even prepared for such changes, yet it’s our own handwork.

“It’s not God, it’s us.”