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Malawi Searches for Recovery From Poor Weather, Thin Harvests - 2002-11-11

In Malawi, weather forecasters and agricultural officials say the late on-set of rains will give farmers more time to get their seeds planted. Malawi is trying to recover from two consecutive years of poor harvests, after drought, then flooding wiped out their primary food crop maize.

Malawi's wet season normally starts in the south in early November and works its way north. Often, there is a false start, and rains stop for an intermittent dry spell that can cause germinating crops to wilt, or seeds to rot underground. This year, the rains are expected to start a bit later than usual and without an initial dry spell.

Malawi's deputy director for Meteorological Services, Gray Munthali, says the delayed rains may benefit farmers. "In the southern part of the country we normally experience what we call locally a "chizimalupsya": in other words, you tend to get a shower or two in late October before the real rains set in. What is happening now is we have not had as many showers in October as we normally experience," he explained. "The government says it is a blessing in disguise because people can receive their inputs (seeds) in time and prepare for the real rains in November," he said.

This year, southern Africa, including Malawi, is likely to be affected by a moderate El Nino weather phenomenon. The condition that is linked to cooling temperatures of the Pacific Ocean air currents could bring shorter growing periods, and an uneven distribution of moisture.

According to the Famine Early Warning System, called FEWSNET, southern Malawi is likely to experience normal to above normal rainfall from now until December, while rainfall in the rest of the country may be below normal during this period. In the second half of the growing season, the situation will likely reverse with the south experiencing less than normal rainfall while the north and central parts of the country experience normal levels of precipitation.

Malawi's Meteorological Department warns that rains could cause flooding and water logging in some areas due to heavy siltation in waterways. Mid-season dry spells are also expected.

Sam Chimwaza is the Famine Early Warning System country representative for Malawi. "Farmers should prepare their land early enough so they are able to plant with the first planting rains and be sure that farmers have access to early maturing varieties of seed, especially of maize in case there is a short season of rain, they can harvest something. The problem is we are coming after two-consecutive bad years of drought and farmers' seed stocks have been exhausted. [That Is why] the government will provide [so-called] starter packs to farmers to provide them ... with two-kilograms of hybrid seed, a kilogram of legume seed beans, ground nuts, or pidgin peas - and [10]-kilograms of fertilizer. This is enough to plant on one-tenth of a hectare of land for small holder farms. It is critical to deliver these inputs by the on-set of the rains," he said.

Malawi government officials said the supplies have been delivered to more than three million families. They say the aim is to help farmers produce about 2.3 million metrictons of maize last achieved three years ago.

Food production is also expected to be supplemented by a so-called winter crop of maize. It has a very short growing season, and is being harvested now. The harvest was helped by the so-called Targeted Inputs Program, known as TIP, an effort by donors and government to distribute free fertilizers and seeds.

Malawi's minister of Agriculture and Irrigation mentions some of the government's efforts to increase food production this year. "To start with, we have implemented the winter TIP for the first time on a large scale and we are pleased at the results. We estimated we might produce 7,500 metric tons, but more recent estimates say more than 100,000 metric tones and next year we expect it to double or treble. And next season we are told there might be an El Nino phenomenon, and we will try to minimize the effects of bad weather; we are going to try to plan for bad weather: we are intensifying the campaign for irrigation, we are digging canals, encouraging people to divert rivers into their fields, we are encouraging people to plant drought resistant crops. So if rains are not adequate we can make up lacking food crops with these crops," he explained.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is spending about $80 million to provide farmers with nearly 200,000 treadle pumps to poor rural families. The pumps are foot operated and one of the least expensive ways to get water from rivers and lakes into farmers' fields.

Efforts are also underway to convince consumers to rely less on maize which requires much fertilizer and moisture in favor of other more drought resistant crops like cassava and other tubers.

Most of Malawi's rice which is produced along Lake Malawi is said to be sold to neighboring countries. Tubers like cassava are grown largely in the north but not effectively marketed throughout the rest of the country.