Updated: Jan 21
Malawi’s rivers make the system of veins pumping life into the country’s largest water reservoir, Lake Malawi. As it makes its 402-kilometer journey down the rift valley towards Mozambique, it morphs into the great Shire River, which, with a life of its own, supports hundreds of thousands of lives in Malawi’s southern region. Its occasional flooding of the southern valley, burgeoning into Lake Malombe at some point, permits the thrift of cash crops like sugarcane, a major support to the country’s economy. As the waters flow in the “lower states,” they carry a replenishment of silt to nourish all the flora and fauna along the Shire’s banks. Meandering into Mozambique, the Shire pours its goodies into the mighty Zambezi River where the Zambezia and Tete Province boundary kinks, at which point it will have strapped on millions of tons of rich Malawian silt to its belt, gifting agricultural fertility to the souls on the shores of the Zambezi.
The reality of the donation of Malawi’s fertile soils to our neighbours is sobering. Yet our focus on agriculture usually shies from addressing this involuntary generosity that has much implication for environmental degradation that is on the rise as our waters continue to migrate outwards. It is quite telling of just the extent of consequential livelihood depreciation an unrestrained Shire river can cause once we factor in the potential of perennial river bank agricultural activity on our side of the border. In late Bingu’s lingua, the damage affects a significant proportion of Malawi’s Greenbelt Initiative and the economic activity that would go with it.
An important angle to ponder on regarding our lavish remittance of soil abroad is the collective failure, as Malawians, to prevent the phenomenon from taking a habitual yearly occurrence. Our hesitance to slow the erosion of rich top soils is a threat to our own persistence. And its three principle drivers, insofar as how the dynamics render themselves in Malawi, are avoidable. The first of these is the unabating population explosion, which escalates the pressure on land and natural resources. Through our commonly shared excellence at expanding human numbers, our elaborate spatial requirements are inevitably contributing to an increased demand for housing and agricultural land, as our demands from the forests, rivers and groundwater continue to grow to cater to our voracious livelihood demands. Through our expansion we continue to fell trees, cultivate on slopes, clearing away level grounds as well as river banks, all while leaving bare the agricultural land that cannot beat the pouring rain as it forcefully sweeps everything it hits to lowlands.
The second driver comprises a weak extension service system in the Ministry of Agriculture, which is often met with a weaker absorption capacity driven by poverty and the absence of education. Until the mid-1990s, extension services were the heartbeat of an agrarian Malawi. Extension workers supported the country’s food self-sufficiency by transferring knowledge and equipping farmers with the knowhow to allay negative impacts of extreme weather-related events. These public-provisioned services, at Bakili Muluzi’s pinnacle of power later in the decade, plunged to their lowest levels of quality that no succeeding president has been able to reverse. Farmers, especially in rural Malawi, have also seen tailored radio programs on the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) fade away as prominence is reallocated to newer, non-agricultural broadcasts while squeezing short the time dedicated to farming methods of the day.
But picking up on poverty as a factor, the costs attached to environment-friendly approaches to farming in Malawi have become an impossibility to opt for sustainable agriculture. Building on Tiunike Online’s analysis on growing inequality, in their independence article of 3 July 2017 (link here), poverty presents least educated farmers with a fait accompli when it comes to their adoption of even the least-cost means of farming. Based on the foregoing, extension services will not work independently of poverty alleviation of the poor in Malawi.
Without leapfrogging too much into the solutions, the third driver, already hinted on above, is education. A certain threshold in education in Malawi is the wedge that separates a sustainable future from the minimum absorptive capacities to adopt environment-smart agricultural technologies and practices. Also driven by poverty, mainly the consequence of government’s failure to reach poor and remote populations across the country with adequate education, farmers in Malawi struggle to grasp the workings of newer technologies as much as they cannot afford to purchase them. The recourse is to rely on archaic farming practices to support a newly configured population. This formula has clearly failed for the last two decades.
Our situation highlights the complexity of a human problem precipitated by the natural endowment of our lake and major river networks, which would be resolved by a concoction of approaches that mix economic, social and environmental factors in the same gourd. The gate watchers at Capital Hill operate as automatons programmed to project attention to agriculture only through a narrow view of their lens. The failure to connect the dots, from the privacy of human intimacy to the behavior of societies that results from the consequential population booms, will be a major catastrophe of our time, and will comprise a significant chunk of the worries of our children in the future.
The agriculture ministry must facilitate the behavior change across our farming communities where grassroots efforts will not suffice. In order to do this effectively, Joseph Mwanamveka will have to coordinate the expertise in the social services ministries while making a firm demand from the Treasury to finance a campaign of a massive nature as this. It is a more justifiable solution to agriculture development than to continue filling the bottomless pit that is the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). Still, he will have a much sturdier case to rally donors favourable to agriculture development behind him. And, more importantly, paying attention to matters such as Malawi’s siltation problem will grant him acceptable reasons to brag his finance credentials can run an agriculture ensemble.
Until Mr. Mwanamveka heeds this call, siltation in our rivers and lakes will not relent at exporting our fertility to Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and farther down to the Indian Ocean. These countries’ ingenuity to harness the transiting resources will determine whether they will profit from our carelessness. In the meantime, our beloved farmers will continue to marvel at the sight of mud in our rivers and lakes commonly mistaken for a positive sign from the Almighty as provision that yet another blessing of adequate rains is here with us. Without linking mudflows to the bare grounds whose best aptitude is to encourage the flow of water above the surface, free-flowing rainwater aggravates the lowering of the water table beneath, since there is little filtration into the ground. Lower water tables are worsened, in turn, by our religious inclination to boreholes as a solution to water-related poverty.
Our farmers will have little understanding of this being a signal of a future we cannot afford to anticipate. And as long as their education does not receive a boost, neither will they correlate the impacts of their social choices in the boudoir to the degradation of their environment.
Siltation of our lakes and rivers is not just a social and environmental problem, but extends to being an economic phenomenon as well. If continued unmitigated, Malawi will be exporting more than soil. With the migrating tonnage go agricultural success, commerce and sustainable livelihoods for us and our children.