Malawi’s population scare; how it’s weakening against climate change

Malawi's population is exploding and putting more stress on natural resources
Malawi’s population is exploding and putting more stress on natural resources
William and Esme Nkhoviwa have six children; not surprising in a country where the UN says each woman has an average of 5.7 children.
Their first born, Charles, is 26 and is getting married this year.
Another of their son plans to wed soon after Charles. Both of them will need land to grow their food and keep some for their children too
“The thought that my sons want land from me to raise their families is
what gives me sleepless nights these days…I just don’t have enough
land anymore,” Nkhoviwa says.
Both Nkhoviwa and his wife Esme stay in Thyolo, the southern region, which is home to coffee and tea plantations mostly owned by
rich decedents of white settlers and where population density varies
between 300-460 persons per square kilometre of arable land.
“Our farmland keeps on shrinking because most of the land is taken up
by tea estates…we are already fighting over land with our other
relatives,” Esme says.
Malawi is one of the 15 countries categorized as a population and climate change “hotspot” by the US based Population Action International (PAI) — a non-profit organisation globally championing for access for sexual and reproductive health methods.
The southern African nation has one of the highest population growth rates in Africa and is among the most densely populated countries on the continent. Its population has grown from 6 million in 1966 to about 15 million in the last four decades.
With an annual growth rate of 2.8 percent, the National Statistical
Office (NSO) projects the population could more than triple to 50
million by 2050 a worrying truth because of increased pressure on water, land and other natural resources.
“Malawi faces severe water scarcity because of the combined effects of
climate change and rapid population growth, which are also increasing
food insecurity, environmental degradation and poverty levels,” says
Clive Mutunga, a senior research associate at PAI explaining why
Malawi has been classified as a population and climate change hotspot
So far Malawi has had its fair share of climate change effects;
persistent dry spells, droughts, flash floods, erratic rainfall, each
passing year show how vulnerable the country has become.
This year alone, floods have affected 12,877 families in southern
Malawi and wiped out entire crop fields. Last year flooding caused by
two weeks of torrential rains destroyed thousands of homes in eight
districts, leaving 300,000 people destitute, eight people dead and
several missing.
Perhaps the largest cost of climate change for Malawi could be the loss of agricultural output as a result of soil degradation, as well as deforestation in catchments around the main urban centres to supply firewood and charcoal.
Forest cover decreased from 41 percent of land in 1990 to 35 percent
in 2008 because of population increases, according to the Ministry of
Environment and Climate Change.
A recent study by the UNDP-UNEP Poverty Environment Initiative (PEI),
found out that unsustainable natural resource use costs Malawi 191
million dollars, or 5.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product each year.
At first glance though, it’s hard to see how population growth in Malawi can
be linked to climate change. But as Dr Thomas Munthali explains; it’s
how effects of rapid population growth makes a country like Malawi,
which is so dependent on agriculture, so vulnerable and less resilient
to climate change effects.
“Unmanaged population growth is clearly a disaster as it over-exploits
natural resources like land, trees which in turn increases the
country’s vulnerability against extreme weather events,” says Munthali, UNFPA’s population and development programme officer.
In response to this twin threat – from the people on the ground and
the skies above Malawi, with the support of UN agencies, Malawi is launching the long awaited National Climate Change Policy.
The policy will among other things help raise awareness on the urgency to adapt to adverse weather events, formulate priority adaptation options, and build capacity to adapting to longer term climate change variability.
“The National Climate Policy shall enhance planning, development and
coordination of climate change programmes and financing,” Director in the department of Environment and Climate Change,” says Aloysius Kamperewera
Early this year, government updated its 1994 National Population
Policy to among other things help create resilience against climate
“The overall goal of the of the policy is to address population dynamics and other emerging challenges like climate change to contribute towards the quality of life…the previous policy focused on reducing population growth rate ,” Minister of Economic Planning and Development Ralph Jooma says.
The population policy seeks to redouble family planning campaigns as
one of the ways to build resilience against climate change effects in a country where about 26 percent of all married women wanting to avoid
pregnancy still lack modern contraception and 26 percent of all recent
births were unwanted while 19 percent were mistimed.
This means there is demand for more contraceptive use and government
needs to reach more women to help reduce population growth and
subsequently reduce carbon emissions and the other climate change
“But unless this happens, it will be very difficult for Malawi to adapt and mitigate against climate change effects and achieve sustainable development,” Munthali says.
Executive director for Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy
William Chadza believes that more access to contraceptives and other
modern ways of family planning methods would help deal with rapid
population growth.
“Simply put, if we can meet the demand for family planning by the
population, we can begin to address issues of climate change
adaptation,” says Chadza.