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Water – both a friend and foe of the people of Malawi

Claire Kelly travelled to Malawi to see at first-hand the struggles people face on a daily basis

Violet-Makaika,-Ellen-Carlos,-Idah-Isaac-and-Wines-Sopo-watering-the-recently-planted-trees-as-part-of-Trócaire's-reforestation-support Violet-Makaika,-Ellen-Carlos,-Idah-Isaac-and-Wines-Sopo-watering-the-recently-planted-trees-as-part-of-Trócaire's-reforestation-support

Last week I travelled to Malawi to see first-hand the work that Trócaire does. I, like many in Ireland, grew up with a Trócaire box on the mantlepiece in my house, so to have the opportunity to meet the family which featured on this year’s box was a privilege.

Despite being well aware of the story of the family featured on this year’s Lenten Appeal nothing could prepare me for seeing the hardships the people of Malawi face on a daily basis.

As we travelled out from the capital Lilongwe I was immediately struck by the volume of people walking the roads, all carrying huge burdens of weight, whether it was women with buckets of water on their heads or men and children with stacks of sticks and wood, everyone was walking somewhere, carrying something in scorching heat.  Immediately I got a sense of the resilience of these people.

We travelled for 6 hours to a village in the Machinga District.  Here I met the family which feature on our Trócaire box this year – Malita and two of her six children, twins Patrick and Patricia. They along with the other families in their village struggle every day in pursuit of clean water to drink and nutritious meals to eat.  I’m not sure what I was expecting but I have to admit to getting a shock when I learnt they had no electricity, no plumbing, no flushing toilets, or any clean water source in their village.

When we arrived we were asked to join them in a hike up the base of a mountain to see a water pump which is shared by four villages.  The heat and length (one hour round trip) of the walk meant that some of the visitors felt unwell when we got to the pump.  This is a journey Malita makes several times a day, sometimes waiting up to 5 hours in a queue with women from neighbouring villages. She will then make the return journey carrying 20 litres of water on her head for cooking, cleaning and drinking. This water pump is in such demand but is unreliable in the dry season so often Malita and her community have to walk even further to a spring which is shared with animals to salvage some water.  They know it is not safe to drink as animals use it too but often there simply is no other option.

The community rely almost entirely on what they produce on their small piece of land as their source of food.  It is predominantly maize but the changing weather patterns make a once reliable crop unpredictable.  The farmers tell us they used to be able to pinpoint the date they would sow seeds, the date they would fertilise and the date they would harvest but due to climate change and its effects, resulting in a much less predictable weather pattern, crops are failing and food insecurity has reached unprecedented levels.

This week marks one year since Cyclone Freddy, the latest in a pattern of cyclones in recent years, which battered southern Malawi killing more than 1200 people, some of whom have not been recovered from under mud slides.  It damaged or destroyed more than a quarter of a million homes and one year on only a fraction of those homes have been able to be restored due to lack of funds.

Taking-part-in-the-tree-planting-is-Gladys-Chitula-and-baby-Shamila-Chitula Taking-part-in-the-tree-planting-is-Gladys-Chitula-and-baby-Shamila-Chitula

I have to admit when I initially heard that Malawi got both floods and dry spells I wondered would one not counteract the other? It wasn’t until I saw it for myself that I fully understood what it meant.  We were there during the wet season and yet the crops were failing in parts because in the traditionally wet season this year there were three weeks without sufficient rain in February which is catastrophic for crop survival.  No more than an hour after looking at the crops that were failing from the dry spell a downpour arrived which, within minutes, was flooding the nearby marketplace and washing away topsoil and turning the roads into rivers. Then it all made sense. The weather extremes are battering this country – making it so much harder to grow crops.  The floods wash seedlings and good topsoil into the rivers, the dry spell then stunts growth of anything that remains.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that people are cutting down trees to make and sell charcoal for fuel to cook – they know it is making the problem worse but they have no other way of feeding their families.  By cutting down the trees the land is much less stable and villages and homes are more exposed when the weather extremes come.

Usually severe food insecurity comes around November each year in Malawi – this year it is being predicted to come as early as May.  This means that from May until next harvest (April 2025) families will be unsure of whether they’ll have enough to eat on any given day.  As a mother of three young children the thought of not being able to feed my children is the stuff of nightmares.

While I witnessed some of the toughest circumstances I’ve ever seen in my life, there was another side to this trip which filled me with hope. I saw the work Trócaire is doing on the ground alongside their local partners to support these communities as they strive to make life better for their families.  Trócaire is supplying the communities with tree seedlings to reforest around the villages, they have provided beehives as an additional business model to supplement traditional crop growth as a means of income.  Trócaire is training farmers in new diverse crops that can tolerate weather extremes a little more than maize can.  Trócaire is supplying goats to villages as a means of using their waste as natural fertiliser to try and restore some nutrients to the soil which has had the top quality soil washed away.

And finally, but most importantly, Trócaire is fundraising through it’s Lenten Appeal this year to raise enough funds to drill a borehole and install a water pump in Malita’s village which will save her and her community the several laborious round trips up the mountain for water.  The time saved will mean she can do more on the farm to protect her crops and it also means that her children Patrick and Patricia will be able to attend school more often rather than helping with the tasks that need done just so they can eat that day.

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