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Valuing water on World Water Day 2021

fish eagle flies over Lake Malawi

Today is World Water Day 2021, with the theme of “valuing water”. Water is essential to life and livelihoods – yet access to it is unequal, and often complex trade-offs have to be considered when allocating between different purposes. To add further complexity, future water availability will vary in the context of climate change, making it even more important that the resource is used sustainably.

The importance of water for lives is recognised in the Fifth Sustainable Development Goal “Clean Water and Sanitation”, which aims to ensure basic water services and wastewater treatment. Although Malawi has steadily improved access to water and sanitation over time, a review in 2020 showed that major challenges remain, and the country is not currently on course to meet the target by 2030.

With the majority of rural Malawians dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, production levels are closely tied to the availability of water. Average annual rainfall varies from around 800mm in the south to 2500mm in upland areas – and in general the north of the country is wetter than the south. But annual rainfall totals disguise the day to day and month to month variation, where intense rainstorms can lead to flash flooding, and dry spells can become droughts.

Flash flooding has prompted interest in watershed management - using tree cover and other Nature-based Solutions – to regulate water flow. Various elements of the BRACC programme are supporting watershed management at community scale, and through the expanded public works programme that is creating community assets to assist with flood control, such as check dams.

Recurrent droughts have prompted an increase in climate-smart agriculture applying conservation techniques such as mulching. This maximises residual soil moisture and allows crops to grow even if the rain does not fall as expected – and was critical in ensuring resilience of farmers during the 2015-16 El Niño-induced drought. Through the use of farmer field schools and lead farmer approaches, the BRACC programme is building capacity for climate-smart agriculture in the districts of Balaka, Mangochi, Phalombe and Chikwawa.

Valuing water also requires management at scale to ensure availability at the right time, in the right place, for varying purposes. Recognising the need for making water regularly available during dry periods, government policy and development plans rely heavily on scaling up irrigation. The National Irrigation Policy of 2016 aims to develop and manage sustainable irrigation, and cites the significant irrigation potential in Malawi as outlined in the Irrigation Master Plan and National Water Resources Master Plan.

At the same time, water availability is essential to generate electricity from hydropower. Currently over 90% of Malawi’s electricity comes from hydropower – one of the highest proportions in the world.

Government water plans consider future population and demand for various purposes but – crucially – do not include modelled future availability in the context of a changing climate. Considering future water availability in the context of climate change is crucial to avoid making decisions and sector allocations now which end up being unsustainable. 

A recent study used 29 Global Climate Models to model future water flowing from Lake Malawi into the Lower Shire. Approximately one third of the models indicated future water availability that would be insufficient to allow spillover from the lake, essentially turning the Lower Shire into a perennial river.

fish eagle flies over Lake Malawi

Since the Shire is part of an international river basin, it is also important to consider water usage in other riparian countries. Tanzania contributes 41% of water to the lake – just behind the 55% from Malawian catchments.  Large scale irrigation planned in Tanzania may reduce the amount of water flowing into the lake.

Together, climate change and water use decisions will have implications for other planning decisions essential to Malawi’s development. As well as hydropower development, this includes the government’s plans to irrigate 42,000 hectares in the south of the country through the Shire Valley Transformation Project. Offtakes for irrigation may also threaten the Ramsar Convention-protected wetland found in the Lower Shire floodplain – Elephant Marsh – which is home to a significant range of biodiversity.

On this World Water Day as we think about valuing water, we are reminded of the importance of managing supply and demand across sectors and scales; balancing between times of over- and under-supply, and considering future availability, to contribute to Malawi’s development.