Climate Change Adaptation in Malawi

According to the World Bank, Malawi ranks among the countries in the world that are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change, including exposure to drought, dry spells, and flooding. These extreme weather events can reduce the country’s agricultural production, threatening the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers and increasing food insecurity and poverty, especially in rural areas.

Thus, adapting to climate change is an important priority for Malawi’s farmers, but as a new article in Food Security finds, farmers’ actual capacity to adopt climate-smart agricultural and land management techniques is determined by a variety of factors.

 Climate change adaptation strategies can include everything from adjusting planting times to adapt to new weather patterns and adopting heat- and drought-resistant varieties of crops to increasing the use of irrigation and engaging in conservation agriculture to preserve soil fertility. The article finds that, despite the Malawian government’s growing support for sustainable agriculture and climate change adaptation, the adoption rate for improved agricultural practices remains very low; this has led to land degradation and stagnant or even decreased agricultural yields throughout the country.

The authors model farmers’ adoption decisions and subsequent changes in agricultural yields, seeking to determine 1) which practices are truly “climate smart” in the Malawian context and 2) how both household and sector-level capacity to adopt new techniques in the face of climate change has affected adaptation strategies in the country. The study uses socio-economic data on 7,842 farming households from Malawi’s Third Integrated Household Survey from 2010-2011, historical data on rainfall and temperature from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) from 1983-2012, and administrative data on access to extension services, availability of credit, distribution of subsidized fertilizers, and government spending on social safety net programs.

 The article focuses on maize-legume intercropping, soil and water conservation strategies, planting of trees, and use of organic fertilizers; these strategies are considered climate-smart practices and are intended primarily to reduce the negative impacts of climate change in the country. A secondary focus includes two strategies aimed primarily at improving agricultural yields: planting of improved maize varieties and use of inorganic fertilizers.

The article came to three main conclusions. First, climate change effects play a large role in determining which agricultural practices farmers choose to adopt. Farmers in areas with higher mean rainfall and lower maximum temperatures were found to use more inorganic fertilizers, while farmers in areas where rainfall was delayed and where temperatures were higher were more likely to use soil and land management practices, such as conservation agriculture and erosion control. The study also found that in areas where climate is more variable, farmers were more likely to adopt practices that reduced their risk, such as planting trees and intercropping maize and legumes, but were less likely to use inputs like inorganic fertilizer that were seen to be riskier or have less guaranteed benefits under variable weather conditions.

The second finding relates to agricultural yields. The authors found that farmers who used a combination of practices rather than adopting just a single new practice had higher yields. The adoption of inorganic fertilizers is positively associated with yield increases, while erosion control systems seemed to negatively impact yield. The results also showed that average maximum temperatures throughout a growing season were found to be strongly related to lowered maize yields. As maize is an important staple crop in Malawi, this finding suggests that the adoption of heat-tolerant maize varieties or a shift to alternative staple crops will be needed if temperatures continue to rise in the country.

Third, a variety of factors impacted households’ and communities’ adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices. Wealthier households and households with more secure land tenure were found to be more likely to adopt organic fertilizers, tree planting, maize-legume intercropping, and soil and water conservation practices. However, households who owned their land were found to be less likely to adopt improved seeds and inorganic fertilizers than households who rented land. The authors suggest that this result could be because farmers who own their land will invest more in the long-term productivity of their land, while farmers who rent focus more on inputs with short-term benefits such as inorganic fertilizers and improved seeds.

At the community level, rural institutions appear play a key role in adaptation decisions. For example, in areas where seed and fertilizer vendors are easily accessible, households tend to use more inorganic fertilizers and intercrop maize and legumes more; in areas where these vendors are not accessible, farmers use more organic fertilizers and plant more trees. Access to agricultural extension services has similarly mixed results, increasing the use of improved seeds and the planting of trees but decreasing the use of organic fertilizers and maize-legume intercropping.

Overall, the article illustrates that while climate change adaptation is essential in protecting Malawi’s agricultural sector, ensuring that such adaptation is successful is far from straightforward. The country covers a range of agro-ecological zones, meaning that the effects of climate change vary considerably. In addition, farmers’ adoption decisions are influenced by a range of social and economic factors. Thus, the article recommends that a combination of climate-smart practices be encouraged, with attention paid to targeting those practices to needs and conditions at the community level.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: Neil Palmer/CIAT