3:04am

Wed January 1, 2014
The Salt

Malawian Farmers Say Adapt To Climate Change Or Die

Originally published on Wed January 1, 2014 11:42 am

Rain is so important in Malawi's agriculture-based economy that there are names for different kinds of it, from the brief bursts of early fall to heavier downpours called mvula yodzalira, literally "planting rain." For generations, rainfall patterns here in the southeast part of Africa have been predictable, reliable. But not now.

In the village of Jasi, in the hot, flat valley of Malawi's Lower Shire, farmer Pensulo Melo says 2010 was a disaster.

"I first planted my maize on Nov. 15," he says, "but the rain dried up, and so did my crop." Recalling each date precisely, Melo says he planted again after it rained on Dec. 10. But again, the rain stopped.

Melo had to take out a loan to plant a third time in January, and he finally got a good harvest. But it wasn't enough to pay back the hefty interest he owed.

"The agriculture and farming systems have been completely altered," says Victor Mughogho, executive director of Eagles Relief and Development. "Adaptation to climate change in our context is a matter of life and death. It's not an option."

Cropland Could Shrink Dramatically

In just the next couple of decades, the World Bank says, farmers across Africa could lose more than half their cropland to drought and heat. The issue is considered so pressing that, a few years ago, Malawi's Department of Meteorological Services added "Climate Change" to its name.

"We were given this name by the politicians, actually," says the agency's principal agriculture meteorologist, Adams Chavula. "They had prioritized issues relating to our economy, and climate change is one of the priority areas."

No wonder. Tobacco, tea and cotton make up the bulk of Malawi's economy and exports. The vast majority of Malawians rely on subsistence farming. Yet, Chavula says, once-dependable rainfall has become increasingly erratic. Nearly every year now, it seems some part of the country is hit with a serious dry spell.

"We actually alternate between droughts and floods — so, moving from one extreme to the other," he says.

Is that climate change? Well, the science isn't yet clear. But it's exactly what's expected in a warming planet.

Malawi's government helps farmers sign up for crop insurance. But how to coax a harvest with the weather gone crazy? That's what Mughogho and his Eagles Relief and Development are trying to figure out.

The aid group was set up by Living Waters church here in 2002, when millions of Malawians faced starvation from a devastating drought. Mughogho, a grandson of farmers, didn't want to just hand out food; he wanted to help villagers make sure they'd never starve again. His group now works with farmers in more than 60 villages — with plans to expand — helping them become more resilient to a changing climate.

Making Farmers More Resilient

In Jasi, a remote community of rutted dirt roads and round mud huts, corn has long been the staple. But this year, Mughogho's group has given the village three bags of seed that's much more drought-tolerant: millet and sorghum.

"They would not require as much moisture to grow and to mature and to harvest," he says.

The donation comes with a condition; next year, farmers here will pass on three bags of their seed to another village.

Eagles is also training farmers to plant differently. Farmer Zachariah Jim shows me a big, rectangle plot covered with hay. Staggered wooden sticks designate where rows of corn and beans are to be planted in zigzag fashion.

"It's to help collect water and conserve it," he explains, "so that hard downpours don't carry away the soil, and the seeds with it."

But even with new methods and new crops, farmers still need rain. And they need to know: When is it safe to plant?

To show me the answer, another farmer, Michael Foley, unlocks a chain-link fence that surrounds a squat, concrete box. Eagles Relief installed it a year ago.

"This is the rain gauge," he says, pulling a dark, metal cylinder out of the center. "You can see this pail in which rain falls."

Last year Foley tracked rainfall levels on a chart provided by the state meteorological agency.

"When it rained at 26.7 millimeters," he says, "we put it on the note boards at the church and at schools, so that people can know they can plant millet."

With exactly that much rain, the soil would be moist enough for millet seeds to sprout. Corn needs more — 35.6 millimeters. That level wasn't reached until late December, more than a month after traditional planting time.

The measurements are sent to the state meteorological office, which broadcasts them on the radio. And this year the office is sending its forecasts straight to Jasi's farmers, via text message. Foley and others pull out their cellphones to show me the latest one: cloudy, with a chance of showers.

From Paradise To Hunger

Despite all of his work, Mughogho still worries about Malawi's farmers. Eagles Relief and Development sets up pumps to irrigate crops near rivers. But with changing rainfall patterns, rivers are drying up. That means no more fish, an important source of protein. And as temperatures rise, crop yields are expected to fall.

"Basically, our grandfathers had a better quality of life than their grandchildren right now," Mughogho says. "Looking at the bigger picture, you've got to ask yourself, 'What's the future like for these communities?' "

Everes Genti wonders as well. The Jasi grandmother isn't sure how old she is, but she remembers when farming life felt like paradise.

"In the 1980s, we were just so free," she says. "When we planted, we were so sure we were going to get a harvest from the field."

Now, she says, her family is hungry. Since a big drought three years ago, they have cut back from three meals a day to two. Eagles Relief has offered one last lifeline; it's given Genti two goats, and one is already pregnant.

"We'll sell the offspring," she says, "and buy food."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Africa produces little of the greenhouse gases blamed for causing global warming, but that continent is one of the main victims of climate change. In the next 20 years, African farmers could lose more than half of their farmland to drought and extreme heat, according to the World Bank. Let's hear from one tiny nation in southern Africa, where that would be devastating. It's Malawi. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on efforts to help farmers there cope.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Rain is so important in Malawi, people have names for different kinds of it. There's...

PENSULO MELO: Sizima ropia.

LUDDEN: Brief bursts in early fall. Then mvula yodzalira: planting rain. It sinks in the soil. For generations, these patterns have been predictable, reliable, but not now.

MELO: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Pensulo Melo stands under a shade tree in a stiff, hot wind. He's a farmer, and he says 2010 was a disaster. He planted mid-November, as usual, but the rain dried up. And so did his corn.

MELO: (Through translator) After that, the rain comes around December 10th. So I planted my second crop.

LUDDEN: Again, no more rain. Melo took out a loan to pay for a third planting. He finally got a harvest, but it wasn't enough to pay back his loan. And he's far from alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

LUDDEN: A government office two hours away, in the city of Blantyre. Every 15 minutes, computers flash weather reports from across the country.

ADAMS CHAVULA: This is the lake.

LUDDEN: And state meteorologist Adams Chavula says they show farmers everywhere face tough times. In fact, this agency was recently renamed the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services.

CHAVULA: We were given this name by the politicians, actually, because climate change is one of the priority areas.

LUDDEN: No wonder. Agriculture is Malawi's economy. Its tobacco may be in your cigarettes, its cotton in your t-shirts. You may have drunk its tea. Across the highlands and plateaus here - squeezed between Mozambique and Zambia - the vast majority of Malawians rely on subsistence farming. Yet, Chavula says, nearly every year now, it seems some part of the country is hit with a serious dry spell.

CHAVULA: We actually alternate between, you know, the droughts and floods, so, moving from one extreme to the other.

LUDDEN: Is that climate change? Well, the science isn't yet clear. But it's exactly what's expected in a warming planet. Malawi's government helps farmers sign up for crop insurance. But how to coax a harvest with the weather gone crazy?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDDEN: A Pentecostal church here is helping figure that out. Back in 2002, millions of Malawians were starving, in a terrible drought. Living Waters Church wanted to help. It set up Eagles Relief and Development, with funding from a variety of Christian aid groups. To head it up, it turned to one of its own members with professional experience in development, Victor Mughogho.

VICTOR MUGHOGHO: My grandparents have all been farmers. I have lived in the villages myself.

LUDDEN: He didn't want to just hand out food. He wanted to help farmers make sure they'd never starve again. To do that, Mughogho realized they needed to brace themselves for a changing climate.

MUGHOGHO: The agriculture and farming systems have been completely altered and affected. So, adaptation to climate change in our context is a matter of life and death. It's not an option.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

LUDDEN: To show me, Mughogho takes me on a winding drive south, a 3,000-foot drop from temperate savanna to hot valley. Lush, green hills give way to flat, brown dust. I start to sweat. We turn off the pavement, bump past round mud huts, and come to the farming community of Jasi.

MUGHOGHO: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: This is where Pensulo Melo had to plant three times to get his maize to grow. Corn has long been the staple here. But this year, Mughogho's group has given the village three bags of seed that's much more drought-tolerant. Not corn - millet and sorghum.

MUGHOGHO: They would not require as much moisture to grow and to mature and to harvest.

LUDDEN: The donation comes with a catch: next year, farmers will pass on three bags of their seed to another village. Eagles Relief works with farmers in some 60 villages, with plans to expand. But it aims to help communities help themselves. Another key change: planting differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAY RUSTLING)

LUDDEN: This big, rectangle plot is covered with hay, to hold in moisture.

ZACHARIAH JIM: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Farmer Zachariah Jim says rows of maize and beans will be staggered. That helps keep harder downpours and floods from washing away the soil. But even with new methods and new crops, farmers still need rain. And they need to know: When is it safe to plant?

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE UNLOCKING)

LUDDEN: Another farmer, Michael Foley, unlocks a chain link fence and shows me a squat, concrete box. Eagles Relief installed it a year ago. Inside...

MICHAEL FOLEY: (Through translator) This is the rain gauge.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

FOLEY: (Through translator) You can see this pail, in which rain falls.

LUDDEN: Setting down the dark, metal cylinder, Foley shows me the chart where he tracked rainfall levels last year.

FOLEY: (Through translator) When it rains at 26.7 millimeters, we put on the note boards at the church and at schools, so that people know they can plant millet.

LUDDEN: With exactly that much rain, the soil would be moist enough for millet seeds to sprout. Corn needs more - 35.6 millimeters. The measurements are sent to the state meteorological office, which broadcasts them on the radio. And this year, the office is sending its forecasts straight to Jasi's farmers. Foley and others pull out cell phones to show me - text messages.

FOLEY: (Through translator) It's in Chichewa, and it's written: (foreign language spoken).

LUDDEN: Cloudy, with a chance of showers. Despite all his work, Victor Mughogho still worries about Malawi's farmers. Eagles Relief and Development sets up pumps, to irrigate crops near rivers, but rivers are drying up. That means no more fish. And as temperatures rise, crop yields are expected to fall.

MUGHOGHO: Basically, our grandfathers had a better quality of life than their grandchildren right now. Looking at the bigger picture, you've got to ask yourself: What's the future like for these communities?

(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS PLAYING)

EVERES GENTI: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Everes Genti isn't sure how old she is. But she remembers: farming life used to feel like paradise.

GENTI: (Through translator) She's saying, in 1980s, they were just so free. When they plant, they were just so sure that they were going to harvest from the field.

LUDDEN: Now, she says, we're hungry. Since a big drought three years ago, her family's cut back from three meals a day to two. So, Eagles Relief offers one last lifeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOATS BAAING)

LUDDEN: The group has given Genti two goats.

GENTI: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: We'll sell the offspring, she says, and buy food. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.