Farmers in Chipole, Balaka are frequently haunted by devastating dry spells and flash floods.
Group village head Chipole says most households were stuck in perennial hunger and abject poverty due to the effects of climate change and extensive environmental degradation.
He narrates: “Our negligence ruined the environment and run-offs kept washing away our fertile soils, crops, livestock and other vital belongings into rivers.
“We often had to replant, but the second crop could not thrive with drought and prolonged dry spells.”
The villagers fleeing hunger and poverty desperately cleared forests for charcoal and to create better-yielding crop fields and safer settlements.
The resultant environmental degradation increased their vulnerability to climate change, especially flooding, dry spells and droughts.
World Food Programme (WFP), a United Nations (UN) agency that fights hunger, indicates that although Malawi has a strong national environmental policy, agricultural productivity is constrained by high deforestation rates, rapid population growth and overreliance on rain-fed agriculture.
Jesse Inusa, 41, says crop yields in her field the size of a football ground kept falling due to the unpredictable rainfall.
In 2017, she harvested just one bag from the one-acre maize field that once produced five.
“The yield dropped and I had nothing to store for my family or sell,” says the mother of four. “Mine was a house of hunger,”
However, the harvest has been on the rise since the 2018/2019 growing season, when the villagers resolved to collectively tackle the impacts of climate change and environmental mismanagement.
Last year, Inusa harvested 35 bags of maize from the once gullied plot.
“I have more than enough food for my household. I sell the surplus to buy what I need,” she says.
Chipole says they no longer experience furious run-offs and devastating floods.
“We now have peace of mind. When it rains heavily, our fields and houses are safe,” the traditional leader brags.
The community attributes their bumper harvests and growing resilience to integrated solutions supported by WFP through Find Your Feet with funding from the UK and Germany.
The locals have created stone bunds across the slopes, planted trees on bare spots and agreed to apply manure to restore soil fertility. They have also built water harvesting structures such as check dams, swales, eyebrow basins and deep trenches on the slopes of Ndanda Hills, idle spaces and their gardens.
Since 2017, Find Your Feet has been spearheading these efforts to reduce the frequency and devastation caused by climate-related weather shocks.
James Wotchi credits the watershed management structures with improving the retention of rainwater in the soil, reducing the loss of soil caused by runoffs and strengthening their resilience to climate change.
“The destruction caused by runoffs and floods have become sporadic as rainwater is slowed and collected by the trenches and swales on the slopes,” he says.
Wotchi, who is responsible for land management on the hillsides, says the benefits of watershed management have encouraged the community to plant trees and keep hands off waning natural forests.
“The trenches, eyebrow pits and semi-circle ridges covered with sand and stones, which we made to harvest rainwater, have made even rocky fields suitable for tree-planting and most of the trees survive,” Wotchi explains.
The rural community has planted over 60 000 trees since 2018 and 51 000 have survived. The survival rate of trees has risen from 76 to 86 percent since 2018.
They planted 21 000 trees this year, with over 9 000 fruit seedlings earmarked to be grafted and planted in the next tree-planting season.
Chipole Village, located almost 26 kilometers from Balaka Town, now has 11 woodlots on riverbanks, crop fields and homesteads.
Paul Chisale says: “I am glad that apart from just planting trees, keeping hands off natural trees reduced to stumps has led to fast restoration of green cover such as the1.5-hectare Kapula Forest in the vicinity.”
For Violet Botomani, the improved food production resulting from collective conservation efforts is fragile without reducing the appetite for fuelwood.
Some 280 households in the village now cook using energy-efficient cookstoves “that halve pressure on trees”, she states.
“The cookstoves widely known as Chitetezo use less firewood and emit less smoke than open fires. This protects our trees, houses and fertile topsoil required for bumper harvests,” she says.
WFP country representative Benoit Thiry says the UN agency is impressed with how the interventions have improved lives of the people.
He says: “Yields have increased while embracing crop diversification, thereby achieving food and nutrition security.
We are assured of sustainability as communities are conserving the environment.”