Message for Ireland from the front line of climate change
Activist Heather Maseko explains how Malawi is trying to cope with extreme weather
Heather Maseko: “Whole districts were covered in water and livestock, food and houses washed away.” Photograph: Eric Luke
It is often said that climate change is hitting the world’s poorest countries hardest and that those who have contributed the least to its causes are suffering the most. The message was brought home starkly by Heather Maseko, a climate-change activist from Malawi, on her recent visit to Ireland.
The southern African country has faced erratic, extreme weather in the last few years, with devastating effects on the short growing season from November to March or April.
“Flood washed away over half of Malawi’s crops last year, and the dry spell that followed reduced the chances of growing new crops,” Maseko says. More than a million people were affected by the floods, and 230,000 people were displaced from their homes.
“The southern region of the country was the worst affected, with whole districts covered in water, and livestock, food and houses washed away.”
The temperature in Malawi has risen 0.9 degrees over the past 60 years, and some experts predict that it could rise another 4 degrees by the end of the century without action on climate change.
The population of Malawi also grew, from 3.8 million in 1964, when the country gained independence, to more than 16 million now. More than 80 per cent of the population are farmers, and most of them work on less than a hectare.
Malawi’s economy is principally based on growing tobacco for export and on growing maize as a staple food. Malawi is the sixth largest producer of tobacco in Africa, according to some estimates; its accounts for about two-thirds of the country’s foreign income.
So encouraging farmers to move away from this cash crop to healthy food is a complex and ongoing issue, not least because the need for food aid increases each year that the maize crop fails.
The Irish development agency Trócaire brought Maseko to Ireland to speak to politicians and students about the impact of climate change in Malawi. She also features in a documentary it has made about Malawi, as part of its Burning Question campaign.
By showing audiences in Ireland the devastation that flooding and drought have caused to farming in Malawi, the campaign aims to link the effects of climate change to the global campaign to divest from fossil fuels.
Organisations such as Trócaire are keen to raise awareness of the fact that the developed world’s consumption patterns are the main causes of the climate change to which the developing world is struggling to adapt. The carbon footprint of one Irish person, for example, is equivalent to that of 80 Malawians.
“Sixty per cent of global carbon emissions come from our dependency on fossil fuels, and we want people to realise that the only way to stop using fossil fuels is to stop investing in fossil-fuel companies. In 2015, 70 per cent of energy investments went to fossil-fuel industries,” says Cliona Sharkey of Trócaire.
Comparing our continuous supply of electricity and fuel with the experiences of Malawians is a potent example of this global imbalance. Maseko says that less than 10 per cent of the population of Malawi is connected to the electricity grid. Even those who are connected receive only about four hours of electricity, from midnight to 4am, every 24 hours.
“And, with lower water levels in many of our rivers, the hydroelectricity generators can’t work at their best, so even in urban areas we experience regular power outages,” she says.
Maseko, who campaigns on climate change with the National Youth Network in Malawi, says that most farmers there are more concerned with how they can adapt to global warming than they are with the bigger picture of who is causing it.
In the Trócaire documentary one farmer says that his family is eating only two meals a day now, instead of three, as food shortages have pushed up prices. “These people won’t have any food until the next growing season,” Maseko says. This leads to even more undernutrition among children and women; 2.8 million people Malawians are estimated to need food aid.
When faced with this level of food insecurity farmers have no choice but to try to diversify. Trócaire and other nongovernmental organisations are working to help them supplement their incomes by keeping bees and goats, among other activities.
Sharkey says, “We are encouraging farmers in Malawi to move from negative coping strategies, such as cutting trees to sell charcoal, to sustainable farming practices, such as keeping bees, to sell honey, and planting trees, to hold water to prevent run-off and flooding.”
Irrigation schemes powered by solar energy also offer hope. One scheme in the documentary shows how one school uses solar panels to power an irrigation system. The food that grows as a result is used to feed the pupils and so reduce undernourishment.
But Maseko points out that solar-powered irrigation is still rare in Malawi, despite the abundance of sunshine and government policies for large-scale irrigation farming.
Like many other countries, Ireland included, Malawi now has a suite of policies focused on environmental issues. But also like many other countries – Ireland included – implementation has been poor. “Maybe if we tried to implement our policies we could manage better,” Maseko says.