By Emmanuel Likoya, Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST)
March 13, 2024

Malawi is experiencing a ‘precipitation dipole’- the ongoing El Niño has brought anomalously high levels of rainfall to its northern parts even as the south reels under a severe drought. This is a result of its coincidental location, with its northern parts falling right under the point of convergence of three moisture-laden airmasses the average location of which shifts northwards during El Niño events.

malawi djf 2023 24 rainfall

The figure above depicts the average cumulative rainfall during the summer months (December-January-February) between 1981 in comparison to the most recent summer. The significantly larger area under blue in the north, and the bigger patch of orange in the south in the map on the right, highlight the anomalous extremities the country is facing this year. The figure below shows the exact extent of deviation from the average in the north, central, and southern regions.

malawi 2024 rainfall across regions

As to the severity of the drought in the south, the following figure depicts visually how the ongoing drought has been the most intense in the past 12 years and has lasted longer than any other drought except the one in 2015-16.

malawi rainfall 2012 2024

For a more detailed meteorological insights into El-Nino’s impact in Malawi, please see this research brief.

What does this ongoing weather anomaly look like on the ground? While the incessant rains in the north and central regions have led to flooding, loss of lives, crops, and property, it is the dry spell in the south that is causing the more acute problem—crop failure and food scarcity. The output of maize, the staple crop, is expected to fall to alarming levels.  In combination with drought-induced drops in output in neighbouring Zambia and South Africa, the region is looking at a maize shortage which will be felt most acutely in the coming months. According to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC), around 4.4 million people (22% of the total population) were being provided relief and aid as of August 2023. The World Food Programme and the FAO pointed out that successive droughts in the country over the years had created the “worst food insecurity in a decade.”

Against the backdrop of successive droughts and worries that climate change could make weather anomalies more frequent, there has been a push to expand irrigation in Malawi. The current dry spell and crop failures have amplified calls to accelerate development and expansion of irrigation schemes. FoSTA-Health research will be identifying and filling key evidence gaps in this area. During the ongoing droughts, we have been examining how drought affects irrigated areas, and are trying to understand how sustainable transition to irrigation can be made without jeopardizing other production systems and ecosystems that depend upon the same water resources as irrigation schemes.

We will continue to monitor the situation in Malawi and share our observations in subsequent briefs.

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