Emmanuel Likoya and David Mkwambisi (Malawi University of Science and Technology), Andrew Dougill (University of York)
February 7, 2024

Irrigation development is at the center of agricultural innovation in Malawi, with land under irrigation more than doubling over the last two decades. It is widely perceived that irrigation provides a route to achieving food security and agricultural commercialization goals in the face of shocks such as droughts and floods. This has been supported by the view that the agriculture sector is largely dominated by poorly developed rainfed systems which are perpetually underperforming and overly susceptible to climatic shocks, more so for key cereals such as maize.

irrigation malawi blog

The FoSTA-Health project is exploring the evidence around the relationship between irrigation-dominated agricultural innovations, water resources and resilience to shocks in southern Malawi.

The rationale for irrigation development in Malawi is based on making the most of the abundant water resources to navigate climate-related challenges and fostering a competitive agriculture-based economy. Flagship projects in the Shire River basin and ambitious plans in the country’s long development agenda (Vision 2063) is evidence of the government’s and development partners’ commitment to this view. A range of catchment studies have identified critical relationships between agricultural transformations and water resources that are key to irrigation development. For instance, flow regime changes in the Shire River and Lake Chilwa basins have been identified, that have been attributed to land use changes driven by agricultural land expansion. Impacts of climate change on water resources and flow regimes in some basins have also been identified, with the potential to influence trade-offs in hydro-power generation, irrigation, water supply, and ecosystem services.

Emerging evidence of climatic limitations for irrigation development notwithstanding, there is no evidence to suggest that evidence of future climate risks is adequately considered in the planning of irrigation landscapes. More recent policies highlight the need for sustainable irrigation development, but it is not adequately unpacked to highlight what constitutes sustainable irrigation.

Transformations of agricultural landscapes have been characterized by ecological impacts emanating from use of chemical inputs that have been central to agricultural innovation in Malawi. Studies in basins across southern Malawi (e.g., Likangala River catchment of the Lake Chilwa basin and Ruo River catchment of the Shire River basin) have presented evidence of impacts of agricultural transformations on the chemical balance of the soil and nearby water resources. This magnifies the impacts of landscape changes on ecosystem services critical for sustainable, equitable agricultural and nature-based livelihoods. 

Evidence of poorly conceived irrigation development falling short of expected gains is available, but irrigation remains an attractive planning and policy route to achieving food security and agricultural sector growth in the face of worsening climatic shocks in Malawi. There are key evidence gaps around the susceptibility of irrigation to future climatic changes, without which sustainable transformation of landscapes to support irrigation could be difficult to realize especially in basins with unique hydrological and ecological characteristics. Such basins are of interest to irrigation development, and demand considerable spotlight and attention. Examples include the Lake Chilwa basin which supports over a million people in Zomba city and surrounding districts.

FoSTA-Health research will help improve the understanding of systemic interactions essential for sustainable transformation of agricultural landscapes and practices in such unique environments of national significance.


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