Sunlight waters dry farmland

Solar mini-grids for irrigation help starving farmers beat water scarcity, hunger and poverty made worse by climate change, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA explains.

As rains repeatedly “dribble past” Masasa lowlands in Ntcheu District, Martha Chingwalu, 21, struggles to feed her family and walks longer to fetch water. The only borehole in her village, Chiwembu, frequently dries. The hiccup leaves women stuck in a lengthy queue for hours.

“Nowadays, this area gets inadequate rain. The rainy season has become shorter and unpredictable, with persistent dry spells,” she narrates.

Desperate for water, Chingwalu walks over two kilometres to a seasonal stream christened Chigumukire because it keeps falling in. The silted gully is dotted with hand-dug wells. To get there, women walk past vast crop fields sparsely forested with msangu trees. The thorny trees restore soil fertility and moisture, but locals say crop yields keep dwindling due to erratic rains.

Chingwalu draws water from one of the wells in Chigumukire stream

No easy routine

Climbing down the dry ravine where women obtain murky water, we saw a four-year-old girl holding Chingwalu’s shoes. The mother-of-one was filling her bucket deep in the well. Many times, she threw the muddy water away—a torturous yet routine search for clean water.

“The water is dirty. When we leave, goats, cattle and pigs come to drink and play,” she said.

Chingwalu and her neighbours say they usually wake up around 3am to queue for drinking water at the overwhelmed borehole. Afterwards, they go to the river to draw water for other chores.

“Sometimes, we return from the well at 6am. If you go back to fill a second bucket, you will not go to tend to your crops. How can we beat hunger and poverty as climate change hits harder?” she said.

As she paced in the scorching temperatures, she wiped sweat off her face.

“This October is hotter than usual. The rains are about to start, but these days you cannot tell when the first rain will come,” Chingwalu stated.

This sums up the uncertainties of farmers in the low-lying plain split by the winding footpath she walks three times every day. As rains start late and vanish before the cobs mature, crop yields in their fields are dwindling.

“Last growing season, I didn’t harvest enough to feed four children because the rains stopped when the maize was tasselling,” says Leah Chisoni as climate change worsens water and food problems in drylands like Masasa lowlands. “Water is almost everything to our families and crops, but we hardly get enough. We look dirty because it doesn’t come easy. We use every drop sparingly”

Not any longer

But optimism is rising in the rural locality as engineers deployed by the Environmental Affairs Department (EAD) are constructing a solar-powered water supply system to cushion the drought-prone community from harsh effects of climate change. The Adapt Plan programme bankrolled by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) for Least Developed Countries and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has brought water closer to surrounding villages in group village head Yesaya’s territory.

 “This is killing three birds with one stone,” says Linungwi Scheme chairperson Robert Welekemu. “Apart from improved access to water for our fields and homes, a fish pond is currently under construction. Come next year, we will be catching chambo right here.”

In the sunny setting, 10 solar panels convert sunlight to electricity used for pumping groundwater into four tanks storing 10 000 litres each. From the elevated reservoirs, the water glides to 36 outlets that irrigate the 10 hectare scheme and three communal taps.

“Government considers irrigation to beat effects of climate change and this is best placed because the valley below Masasa highlands is prone to drought. The project started in 2015, the start of prolonged drought in the area,” says Limbani Mzembe, district irrigation officer in Ntcheu.

Resilient future

With water within reach, Melifa Hauya, a mother of five, expects an end to chronic hunger and long walks to the stream.

“Most importantly, we will be planting various crops twice a year without worrying about erratic rains. To us, this means enough food for our families and more money from sales of surplus. It will be easy to send our children to school and acquire vital assets as climate shocks -related become frequent and more devastating,” she gushed.

The three-in-one irrigation scheme is just one of the Adapt Plan interventions happening in Ntcheu, Zomba and Nkhata Bay.

Other adaptation initiatives include community-led forest management, bee-keeping, tailoring, fish ponds as well as poultry and livestock production.

“Adapt Plan seeks to help vulnerable communities become resilient to climate change. We started with raising community awareness to climate change issues, then we jointly analysed their susceptibility to climate change and came up with ways to strengthen their resilience to climate-related challenges identified by the community members themselves,” explained Gullivert Gomani, from EAD.

The locals also contributed land, sand and bricks for construction work. Said Chisoni: “We did our part happily because improved water and food supply could be an answer to worsening poverty and other effects of climate change. Now, we will harvest more and use the time wasted fetching water to generate income we can use to buy food when rain-fed crops wilt.”

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