Achieving an End to Malawi’s Drought: From Key Challenges to Legislative Recommendations

In an economy that is heavily dependent on the agricultural sector, drought has caused loss to crops and agricultural production. For instance, Maize is the preferred staple of most of southern Africa. It supplies two-thirds of the national calorie intake. Nine out of 10 farming households produce maize and devote over 70% of their land to growing it, and Over 90% of farming households in the country rely solely on rain to irrigate their maize plants.

Malawi has recently announced a state of emergency in 23 of its 28 districts following a recent ecological crisis that has crippled its food supply. According to its president, Lazarus Chakwera, the incident has caused an urgent need of more than $200 million to mitigate the crisis on its over 200 million citizens.

The southern African nation is not the only country in this crisis, reports have emerged that some other countries in the southern region of Africa such as Zambia and Zimbabwe have had driest spell of droughts in the past few months. In February 2024, Zambia announced a state of emergency , Zimbabwe who is also con is also considering to follow suit.

This is not the first time Malawi will be experiencing drought, as an increased frequency of drought-occurrences has been observed from the 1980s. In the last 36 years, Malawi has experienced eight major droughts, affecting over 24 million people. Between April to May 2002, several Malawians died of starvation and hunger related issues. According to a world bank reports, the 2002 occurrence affected 2,829435 people and for a country with heavy reliance on cereals, maize production alone was approximately 30% short of the estimated domestic amount.

The 2004/2005 drought plunged the country into one of the most food security crises in more than 60 years. At the peak of the crises, 30% of the population needed emergency food assistance and a total of 5,100,000 people, mostly farmers, women and children were affected as a result of crop failure, insufficient water-supply and malnutrition.

In the 2015-2016 rainfall season Malawi was hit again by frequent floods which resulted in prolonged droughts and floods. In response, the Government of Malawi declared a state of disaster in April 2016, and a post disaster needs assessment was initiated in mid-May under the leadership of the Government.

Between January 24 and 26, southern and parts of central Malawi experienced torrential rainfall from Tropical Storm, leading to widespread flooding. According to Rapid Satellite imagery analysis by the World Food Programme, the flooding has impacted approximately 115,000 people and damaged about 34,000 hectares of cropland. Initial reports indicate the impact is reportedly highest in the southern region.

El Nino, Lanina and Other Causes

El Nino is a natural, recurring weather phenomenon that causes warming of the sea surface in portions of the Pacific Ocean. It occurs when the Pacific Ocean warms and disrupts weather around the globe, resulting in a delayed start of the rainfall season, below-normal precipitation, and dry spells.

According to reports, this condition is what is currently ravaging the Malawi climate system, where rains were delayed in 23 of 24 of their districts by up to two months from February to March 2024, and has resulted in failed crops for many subsistence farmers. Hence, a decrease in the country’s food supplies.

President Lazarus Chakwera stated that he was on a tour of his country to determine the extent of the drought issue, and a preliminary evaluation by the government revealed that around 44% of Malawi’s corn crop had failed or been affected. He said the country required approximately 600,000 metric tonnes of food aid and appealed to the international community for assistance.

In the past, El Niño occurrences have always been linked to drought crises in the southern African part of the country, especially Malawi. The 2015-2016 El Niño caused a catastrophic drought across southern Africa, the worst in 35 years, according to the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs.

Lanina on the other side causes opposite conditions associated with el nino. It is a cooler and Han normal weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean affects global weather structure. It increases the likelihood of above-average and heavy rainfall with severe impact leading to significant flooding on crops, assets and shelter.

Lanina is a no strange occurrence in Southern Malawi. The region is prone to annual flooding during the rainy season, especially along the Shire River, which flows from Malawi into Mozambique and is a tributary of the Zambezi River.

In January 2018, La Niña forced about 8,000 families in 400 villages in the southern district of Chikwawa t, along the upper reaches of the River Shire into displacement. In nearby Nsanje District, another 116 villages were flooded, destroying about 2,600 homes and leading to loss of crops, and loss of livelihood assets.

Drought in Malawi is also tended to be aggravated by deforestation, land degradation, growing water demand and climate change, as a result of climate variability, anthropogenic activities and increased global warming.

Impact and Consequences

In an economy that is heavily dependent on the agricultural sector, drought has caused loss to crops and agricultural production. For instance, Maize is the preferred staple of most of southern Africa. It supplies two-thirds of the national calorie intake. Nine out of 10 farming households produce maize and devote over 70% of their land to growing it, and Over 90% of farming households in the country rely solely on rain to irrigate their maize plants.

However Over the past 40 years, there have been ecological crises caused by 11 El Niño episodes globally, of which seven negatively affected maize production in Malawi and four did not.. However, in those seven negatively affected years, Malawi farming households were severely exposed to low rainfall patterns. They only harvested 22.5% less maize than expected on average. Given the less productivity non farm and urban are not spared with food shortages, this drastically has led to sharp price increases that continue to reduce urban households'
disposable incomes.

Although the government had at different made attempts to find lasting solutions that will avert the effect of the drought on its citizens. For example, following the latest 2024 drought disaster, Lazarus led government declared a state of disaster n 23 of its 28 districts and the appeal to the international community for an urgent need of more than $200 million humanitarian assistance.

In 2014, the government had implemented disaster forecasting and risk modeling measures to reduce risks and create safer environments for communities. The measures led to advanced disaster preparedness by the country’s citizens, who are partially able to predict catastrophic events. The project was achieved through the Malawi Disaster Risk Management project financed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and led by the World Bank’s Africa Disaster Risk Management Group.

The 2022-2027 Social Support for Resilient Livelihoods too has also complemented all efforts to respond to the livelihood crisis among Malawi citizens. The initiative which was designed in 2020 to improve resilience and build human capital among poor and vulnerable populations through social cash transfers has become a major tool for addressing multiple and overlapping crises in Malawi. In 2021, nearly 140,000 households benefited from the project’s while In 2023, approximately 214,000 households were provided with cash transfers in response to acute food insecurity caused by droughts across 20 districts.

Why Malawi should look into its Legislative Framework

As commendable as these responses are, it is pertinent to understand that finding lasting solutions to Malawi’s drought crisis is a cross-cutting issue requiring effective legislative framework. Many of the Malawi laws enacted In the past are either not more a match for modern responses introduced in recent times or needed to be streamlined to suit the current narrative.

For instance, The Disaster preparedness and relief, Act 1991, one of two major Malawi’s climate crisis laws was really enacted by the parliament to provide for the coordination and implementation of measures to alleviate drought disaster, but from records, what this legislation have only been able to achieve over the years was activation of different committees such as the National Disaster Preparedness and Relief Control Committee, and empowering same with the management and control of relief funds.

The operation of this act has faced criticism from Malawian climate experts and non governmental organizations over the years, especially for its exclusion in addressing Malawi’s vulnerability to low level earthquake risk, creation of restrictions on cultivation of marginal lands and encroachment upon marginal areas.

These are issues organizations like The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies considered as recommendations for amendments to Act No.24 of 1991 to further guide disaster risk management mainstreaming in the country creation of long term reduction of disaster losses in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of the country.



1. “Malawi Drought 2015-2016 : Post-Disaster Needs Assessment.” World Bank, retrieved from (PDNA) (visited on April 14, 2024)

2. “Malawi Declares a State of Disaster Over Severe Drought.” Morning Star, retrieved from (visited on April 11, 2024)

3. “Malawi Drought Recovery & Resilience Project.” World Bank Document, retrieved from (visited on April 12, 2024)

4. Chabvungma, S. D., Mawenda, J., & Kambauwa, G. (2014). “Drought conditions and management strategies in Malawi.” Integrated Drought Management Programme, retrieved from (visited on April 12, 2024)

5. Devereux, S. (2002). The Malawi famine of 2002. IDS bulletin33(4), 70-78.

6. “Malawi Follows Zambia to Declare Drought Wrought by El Niño.” The Hindu, retrieved from (visited on April 12, 2024)

7. “Climate Change Policy and Legal Framework in Malawi.” Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), retrieved from (visited on April 12, 2024)

8. “Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act.” Malawi Legal Information Institute (MalawiLII), retrieved from (visited on April 12, 2024)

Writer, journalist, and legal researcher, Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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