Malawi’s government is faced with a dilemma: how to strike a balance between using Lake Malawi’s water to drive turbines and to irrigate the land. Africa Report journalist MARK OLALDE writes.
Faced with the challenges of providing food and electricity, the Malawian government is searching for ways to bring both to villages like Chikhawo, just outside the capital city.
“The water comes from God,” Chief Chikhawo explains as a battery-powered radio buzzes in the corner and children crowd the doorway. “It’s rainwater,” Chikhawo clarifies, laughing.
His community lacks electricity and reliable access to safe water. The government has launched a massive roll-out of irrigation infrastructure meant to combat food shortages.
However, this plan threatens the country’s fragile electricity supply by drawing potentially unsustainable volumes of water from the Shire River, which generates nearly all the country’s electricity. Lake Malawi, which feeds the river, is already struggling to provide enough water and power.
Henrie Njoloma, director of the Green Belt Initiative (GBI), a parastatal created to implement the country’s irrigation plan, explains its goals: “As far as we are concerned, all arable land that is close to the water is irrigable.
“It can be turned into the Green Belt irrigated land, and that land—if we take stock—is around one million hectares.”
The Department of Irrigation has plans to supply 408 000 hectares (ha)—more than four percent of the country’s land area—with water. About 104 000ha already receive water from existing schemes.
Many Malawians, from consultants to bartenders, agree with Njoloma that tapping into the lake is the quickest way to alleviate poverty.
“If we can have irrigation, we can get time to get the crops three times per year,” Chief Chikhawo says.
The GBI is developing the Shire Valley Irrigation Project (SVIP), which will convert 42 500ha of largely seasonal floodplains into perennial irrigation farms.
According to the 2015 National Irrigation Master Plan, the SVIP might even increase the amount of electricity available.
The greedy sun
However, not all stakeholders see aggressive irrigation as the answer to the country’s woes. The Shire River handles all Lake Malawi’s outflow, and three hydropower plants on the river produce more than 97 percent of the country’s electricity.
A combination of environmental factors and overuse of the lake threatens water levels and, as a result, power supply. The lake does not have a strong buffer of rivers and streams, and only 17 percent of its annual water loss comes from outflow with evaporation accounting for the remaining 83 percent
Tom Johnson, the founder of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the United States, explains: “This lake is poised to drop dramatically just naturally due to climate variability alone.”
Southern Africa has experienced a major drought that began in 2015. Electricity was severely rationed when the Shire slowed to a trickle in similar circumstances in 1997. Last December saw the lake at its lowest level since 1997, and 2016 is trending toward even lower levels.
“Any major irrigation programme on top of that would be reducing the amount of water that flows into the lake. [That] would just increase the likelihood of the next drop in lake level below [river] outlet elevation,” Johnson says.
Steven Kayira is the manager of the 124MW Nkula power station, and he says Nkula ran at 60-65 percent capacity last year as a result of the river’s low flow. Most irrigation schemes are built close to the lake or river, where they can rely on gravity instead of electric pumps to move water.
Agriculture on riverbanks encourages siltation and the growth of weeds like elephant grass, both of which harm turbines and block cooling systems. “Those who farm alongside the riverbanks are also applying fertiliser, and that creates nutrients for the elephant grass to grow,” Kayira says. “This farming along the Shire River promotes erosion of the riverbanks, thereby increasing siltation.”
According to him, cleaning organic debris blocking Nkula’s intakes costs about $125 000 (about K92.5 million) annually.
Many communities across the country face the same obstacles as Chikhawo village, and people are calling for a solution that provides both electricity and irrigation.
Much of the country’s population uses firewood and charcoal for cooking and heat, and increased access to electricity could halt this reliance.
Malawi loses 2.8 percent of its forest annually on average, leading to erosion that silts the waterways the government plans to use for irrigation.
“The blackouts have increased demand for charcoal, which in turn is resulting in exacerbating environmental degradation in the Shire River basin. It’s a vicious cycle,” energy ministry spokesman Joseph Kalowekamo explains.
Department of irrigation director Geoffrey Mamba tells The Africa Report that a deteriorating environment slows progress on new irrigation projects: “Our rivers are not as strong as they used to be. There are lots of things we are supposed to do in terms of catchment conservation and protection. If we can’t, then one million hectares [of irrigated land] is far-fetched.”
Even if the country can manage its natural resources, large-scale irrigation may strain the country’s fiscal resources. According to GBI director Njoloma, each hectare of irrigation costs about $9 000 (about K6.66 million).
That means the government needs an additional $2.7bn (K1.999 trillion) to reach its current goal. The irrigation programmes are more likely to benefit big business than smallholders.
“Where we’re going has more to do with the commercialised agriculture, not subsistence,” n