Dry valley turns to sunlight

In Kasisi, communities hit hard by chronic water-related disasters face untold uncertainties amid forecasts of floods on the southern tip of the country.

The rural Malawians in the Shire Valley want out of hunger and poverty.  Many families rely on rainfall to water their crop fields, but it has become unpredictable and they scarcely reap much from the fertile fields along Shire River.

Workers laying a pipeline to Mwalija scheme under construction

Group village head Njereza describes as paradoxical perennial food insecurity in the fertile floodplain along the country’s largest river which flows to Zambezi River.

“We have rich alluvial soils and abundant water, but crop yield has been dwindling due to effects of climate change. When there is drought, Chikwawa district is always among the hardest hit. When there are heavy rains, we are the main victims as well,” he says.

For four years, southern Africa’s persistent drought left crops wilting in the sun across the Shire Valley as the low-lying strip is hit hard.

“In April, I did not harvest enough maize to fill a single 50-kilogramme bag,” laments Margret Phanga, from Njereza Village, which sometimes suffers floods with no rains in sight.

Just in 2015, the low-lying setting experienced pangs of the country’s worst floods. Then, the Shire Shire burst its banks, wrecking homes, washing away crops and burying livestock in silt. Displaced people fled and took refuge at Ndanda near Njereza’s royal house.

Now, a realisation is gaining sway that the desired exodus from hunger and poverty somewhat depends on the river and abundant sunshine they usually blame for their hardship.

Tapping the sun

In Kasisi, solar-powered irrigation schemes are taking shape to ensure farmers harvest three times a year.  Reaping more from a small piece of land has become a rallying call amid rapid population growth and worsening environmental degradation.

At Mwalija, we saw a group of construction workers opening canals and laying a pipeline from the Shire to a solar-powered irrigation scheme under construction with funding from the German organisation, Welthungerhilfe.

The channel runs adjacent to Mwalija Solar Power Plant, funded by the European Union, where about 200 farmers who grew maize once a year now produce beans, tomatoes and onions three times.

“With solar-powered pumps, we have realised that our enemy is neither the sun nor the Shire. They are part of the solution,” says Njereza.

The Germans plan to open the new scheme taking shape in the sun-soaked strip, where perspiring people walk bare-chested, in January.

Welthungerhilfe head of programmes Jose Ruiz Verona envisages farmers growing high-value crops up to four times a year.

“A world without hunger is possible,” he says. “With many hours of sunshine and abundant water going to the Indian Ocean, we are creating the modern solar-powered scheme to improve the livelihoods of rural farmers affected by chronic hunger.”

Towards surplus

The 98-hectare irrigation scheme targets about 500 families.

Access to water and solar energy, which is central to the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty by 2030, has the potential to transform people’s lives if put to productive use.

Says Verona: “Rain-fed agriculture is risky and unreliable. Rainfall is erratic. They get rains for a short period. When it rains heavily, they are hit by floods. Sometimes the floods come when the area is experiencing lengthy dry spells.  All this has a disastrous impact on agriculture and livelihoods. Using the power of the sun, we will pump water to their fields so that they can harvest enough food and surplus for sale.”

Beside installing a solar mini-grid to provide water where farmers need it most, the German institution also trains the growers in modern farming techniques and links them with potential markets of their produce and suppliers of recommended farm inputs.

The flow from the continent’s third-largest freshwater lake constitutes an incredible source of water in a dry area, says Verona.

“We have to find solutions that work on the ground to channel some of this precious water to fields where it is needed,” he explains.

At the farm, engineers have installed 288 solar panels to churn out 11 kilowatts from sunlight for running floor pumps.

Welthungerhilfe is working with the Coordination Unit for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (Cure) to train surrounding community and water users’ association to grow businesses and conserve soil and water.

“Welthungerhilfe means a world without hunger. We will continue working in this part of Chikwawa until people who depend on relief items grow enough crops to feed themselves and sell surplus,” says Verona.

Lessons nearby

The wonders of the sun are clear at the EU-funded scheme which started in 1978.

Farmers, who quit in protest to high costs of diesel for running water pumps, are back to their fields where they reaping more all year round.

The solar mini-grid has spectacularly scrapped the huge bills and polluting fumes of burning fossil fuel.

“If the sun shines, water will flow into our fields–signalling a good harvest,” says Felix Fabiano, the secretary of the neighbouring irrigation scheme. n

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