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Malawi on the Brink: Cyclone Scars and El Niño Push Nation Towards Famine


Rocks, remnants of Cyclone Freddy’s wrath last year, litter Bigborn Juwawo’s maize field in Mujiwa village, a harsh metaphor for the devastation gripping Malawi. Parched earth dominates where crops once flourished. What used to be a year’s worth of sustenance from Juwawo’s three fields now barely keeps his family afloat.

“Life is incredibly difficult, especially with six children to feed,” the weary farmer sighs. “This year’s drought stretches on relentlessly, worsening an already dire situation. The donated supplies from the cyclone are long gone, and it’s every man for himself now.”

Juwawo’s plight mirrors that of nearly two million Malawian farmers. President Lazarus Chakwera, his face etched with concern, declared a state of national disaster for the fourth consecutive year.

The culprit this time? El Niño’s capricious hand. While some regions drown under torrential downpours, others, like Malawi, endure searing dry spells. The El Niño effect has ravaged 749,000 hectares of maize, a staggering 44% of the nation’s crop area.

“This is beyond devastating,” Chakwera laments. “Even if this were an isolated event, it would be catastrophic. But this marks the fourth disaster in as many years. It’s a relentless cycle of hardship.”

In a desperate bid to avert famine, the President has issued an urgent appeal for $200 million in food aid. The situation is critical across 23 of Malawi’s 28 districts.

A confluence of factors – the increased intensity of cyclones fueled by climate change, coupled with local deforestation – has pushed Malawi to the precipice of famine. According to the World Food Programme, a chilling 40% of the population faces hunger. Their statement echoes the President’s plea for international assistance.

Cyclone Freddy, which tore through Malawi in March 2023, remains the worst weather event in the country’s history. Its fury unleashed relentless floods and landslides, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Nearly 680 lives were tragically lost, with hundreds still missing. Thousands were injured and displaced – a human cost that goes far beyond the economic toll.

Post-disaster assessments estimated a staggering $36 million loss to Malawi’s economy solely from production losses. Floods ravaged 45% of that figure, wiping out 60,000 hectares of crops – a quarter of that year’s planted land.

But the storm clouds were gathering even before Freddy’s destructive winds. Even in 2022, food insecurity loomed, with 20% of Malawians projected to struggle with hunger.

Then came the relentless battering – Storm Ana and Cyclone Gombe in 2022 – which wreaked havoc on sanitation infrastructure, triggering one of Malawi’s worst cholera outbreaks.

As domestic maize stocks dwindled due to plummeting production, the nation was forced to rely on imports of essential staples like maize, rice, and legumes. However, import costs and scarcity have driven maize prices skyward, nearly doubling in a year and tripling the five-year average.

Caught between failing crops, exorbitant food prices, and dwindling aid, farmers like Juwawo face a stark reality – a relentless struggle against hunger with an uncertain future.

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