El Niño harvest yields nothing but hunger

April 19, 2016
Written by Caoimhe Debarra, Concern Worldwide's Malawi Country Director

Persistent drought has devastated Malawi’s crops, leaving millions in need of food aid. Caomihe Debarra, our Country Director in Malawi, told us what she’s seeing on the ground.

Worst crop failure in a generation

When Ayibi Yunusu, an 85-year-old widow, rented out her land to a local farmer to cultivate in return for part of his harvest, she hoped they would both have enough to eat in the year ahead. But ongoing drought in Malawi has led to the country’s worst crop failure in a generation and Leoni’s lands didn’t produce the bounty she was counting on.

Now neither Leoni nor the farmer will have food to last them through the year; indeed, she only has enough food for two more months. Without outside food assistance, Leoni and her family will suffer from extreme hunger.

Already, almost half the children in Malawi are stunted (physically and mentally underdeveloped) due to malnutrition, one of the highest rates in the world.

As I have traveled around districts in Malawi in recent weeks, I have met many widows and grandmothers raising young children who are in a similar situation — they are among millions of Malawians whose lives have been devastated by the recent drought.

Ayibi Yunusu

Ayibi Yunusu, an 85-year-old widow, rented out her land to a local farmer to cultivate in return for part of his harvest. However, droughts caused by the El Niño weather pattern decimated his harvest, leaving neither with enough food for the year ahead.

El Niño: a national disaster

On April 13th, the President of Malawi declared a national disaster because of the drought and the failed harvests. Up to four million people will be in need of assistance in Malawi over the next 12 months, a sharp increase from the 2.8 million that last year faced hunger and food insecurity caused by flooding and drought. The need for assistance will start sooner for some than for others.

The crop failure strikes a blow to a country already suffering from the effects of El Niño. The impact of this El Niño could last until harvests in early 2017.

It is heartbreaking to meet families who have worked extremely hard over the years to build up a small asset base in very difficult circumstances and have now lost it all.

Already, almost half the children in Malawi are stunted (physically and mentally underdeveloped) due to malnutrition, one of the highest rates in the world. If the international community does not act urgently, malnutrition will threaten the future of countless more Malawian children, and the overall health of the population will be severely affected by hunger-related illnesses.

Another year of chronic hunger many not kill these children outright, but it could kill their chances of getting an education and being strong, healthy, and productive over their lifetimes.

A boy watches his cattle as they graze in the flooded maize fields

Last year, heavy rains and flooding also caused a severe food shortage in Malawi, leaving people with no reserves to survive the current drought. Here, a boy watches his cattle as they graze in maize fields flooded by the Shire River. Photo: Alexia Webster

Desperate measures to survive

In times of crisis, families often adopt negative coping strategies for survival. This can mean reducing the number of daily meals, selling off assets, and withdrawing children from school. These strategies help families get by in the short term, but can leave them even more vulnerable the next time they strike hardship.

Ayibi told me that her children’s education had been a priority, and she made sure that they all attended school. Her eldest grandson is still in school at 18, a rarity in her village. But with almost no food to last her through the year, it is unlikely she will be able to keep them in school.

In Malawi, Concern Worldwide is distributing drought-resistant seeds and implementing an emergency nutrition response.

We have seen many families falling into extreme levels of poverty. It is heartbreaking to meet families who have worked extremely hard over the years to build up a small asset base in very difficult circumstances and have now lost it all. They are forced to remove children from school and marry off girls of 13 or 14.

What is most tragic is that some women and girls are selling sex in exchange for money to buy food, or in return for food itself. As hunger increases, women have been put into riskier and riskier situations, which can sometimes lead to rape.

Across the border, Mozambique suffers also

But Malawi isn’t the only country in the region suffering from the effects of El Niño. Neighboring Mozambique has declared a “red alert” due to severe drought, the equivalent of Malawi’s national disaster declaration. Peter McNichol, Concern Worldwide’s Mozambique Country Director explains that approximately 1.5 million people have been affected.

“There are people displaced,” he says. “Men in particular are migrating long distances, looking for work because the harvest has failed.” In Mozambique, approximately 900,000 are facing acute food insecurity, also known as IPC Phase 3. By July, it is estimated that the 600,000 in IPC Phase 2 — or stressed food insecurity levels — will backslide into Phase 3 as their meager harvests will have been exhausted.

What Concern is doing to help

It is very frustrating to see great progress undone after two years of climate-induced shocks. But early action is key. If we can start supporting people now, we can save lives and prevent an even worse situation later this year and next year.

In Malawi, Concern Worldwide is distributing drought-resistant seeds and implementing an emergency nutrition response. In Mozambique, we’re working to help communities cope with climate-related risks, and develop conservation agriculture.

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