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Malawi's farmers watch climate change

11 June, 2018 - The original French version of this article was published in Le Monde by Marion Douet (Salima Region, Malawi, Special Envoy)

Every morning at 6 am, when it is time for her shift, Jamira Seleman leaves her house to stroll along the river.

She assesses the level of water, indicated by a gauge firmly planted in the middle of the river. Then she writes it down scrupulously on a school notebook wrinkled by time. That morning, the ladder does not indicate more than 70 centimeters. But the figure sometimes flies up, turning the beneficial Lifisi River into a deadly threat to the people of the Salima district, a rural area of ​​central Malawi.

"When the water reaches 3 meters, we, the members of the citizen committee, call our counterparts in the villages below as soon as possible ," Jamira explains.

Installed in 2012, this "early warning" system has been tried several times since." It's very useful. With this system, we save lives, " says Jamira Seleman, chin up.

In February 2017, during the rainy season, an alert was issued at 3 am from the station at the top of the watershed. A few telephone calls and the information reached the villages along the shores of Lake Malawi, 30 km below.

Immediately, the members of the committee grabbed their bicycle and vuvuzela, giving residents the signal to flee at once. A few hours later, about 500 people converged on the evacuation center, a large, dry brick building, and no deaths were reported that night.

The Green Climate Fund pledged $ 12.3 million for a project led by the government and the United Nations Development Program (which commit $2.2 million and $ 1.8 million, respectively) dollars) to expand this early warning system to 75% of the districts for the benefit of 2 million people.

The process requires not only the installation of gauges over rivers, but also to train residents and local authorities and provide equipment (phones, torches and solid shoes) to the voluntary families.

Announced a few weeks before the COP21 in Paris in 2015, the project is one of the first funded by the Green Fund, a UN body devoted to the fight against global warming. With a budget of 10 billions dollars, it focuses in particular on the adaptation of the most vulnerable countries to climate change.

Malawi, ranked among the ten poorest states on the planet, suffers from recurring droughts but also severe floods. Extreme weather events are frequent, exerting a heavy economic and human toll.

Sitting in the shadow of his house from which he sees the Lifisi River, old Isola is formal: "When I was young, there were many trees around my village, and there was no flooding." The old man remembers with sorrow that, in 2017, the waves carried away the traditional - and invaluable - costumes of his community.

Agressive deforestation to produce coal and expand fields exacerbates the consequences of global warming. "The floods now affect areas where they were unheard of before, up to the capital Lilongwe. The number of districts considered in a "natural disaster" situation has doubled in ten years," confirms Samuel Gama, a young hydrologist with the Department of Natural Disaster Management, the service that implements the project.

Absence of infrastructures

Beyond the human toll, climate disasters have serious consequences for agriculture, fishing and the purchasing power of families living sometimes on less than 50 eurocents a day. Therefore, in addition to flood warning systems, the Green Fund project also aims to develop weather forecasts. The need is obvious for the Lake Malawi fishermen, who work at night in search of the fish that reach the surface.

Every evening, the national radio broadcasts a general forecast of the expected weather on this great freshwater area with a superficy equivalent to Belgium. "It's way too generic," laments a group of men gathered on the beach, where tiny fish dry. "Sometimes they announce strong winds, so we do not go out. We are waiting for one day, two days, but at some point we have to something to eat on the table so we go, and the storm finds us in the middle of the lake, " says one of them, Jonas Duli.

In order to refine the forecasts, sounding buoys will be installed on the lake, while about thirty meteorological stations and lightning detectors will consolidate the system on the ground. In Salima, a "climate center" has been opened, where seasonal forecasts are made available to the inhabitants. But few go there.

"It's six hours away. With the maintenance of my home and my field, I do not have the time,” says Emily Million, a mother living on the edge of a dust track, away from the paved road that goes north. Like her, many have no bicycle, no radio, no mobile phone.

The coordinators of the project, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021, have not yet determined what will be the most effective means (information centers, radio bulletins, SMS) to reach these families. A major challenge is the lack of infrastructure.

In Malawi, the level of access to electricity in rural areas is only 4 %, according to the World Bank, one of the lowest in the world. As a fisherman points out, "Receiving SMS alerts would be great, but will they also provide us with the power panels to charge mobile phones?”