Malawi: Thirsty for power, hungry for food

By Mark Olalde in Lilongwe

Posted on December 7, 2016 11:44

Malawi’s government is faced with a dilemma: how to find the balance between using Lake Malawi’s water to drive turbines and to irrigate the land

Faced with the challenges of providing food and electricity, the Malawian government is searching for ways to bring both to villages like Chikhawo, just outside the capital city.

“The water comes from God,” Chief Chikhawo explains as a battery-powered radio buzzes in the corner and the village’s children crowd the doorway, eager to eavesdrop on the elderly chief’s business. “It’s rainwater,” Chikhawo clarifies, laughing.

His community – which shares his family’s name – lacks electricity, the subsidised fertiliser popular elsewhere in the country, and reliable access to water. The government has launched a massive roll-out of irrigation infrastructure meant to combat food shortages.

However, this plan threatens the country’s fragile electricity supply by drawing potentially unsustainable volumes of water from the Shire River, which generates nearly all the country’s electricity. Lake Malawi, which feeds the Shire River and is shared with Tanzania and Mozambique, is already struggling to provide enough water and power for Malawi.

Henrie Njoloma, director of the Green Belt Initiative (GBI), a parastatal created to implement the country’s irrigation plan, explains its goals: “As far as we are concerned, all arable land that is close to the water is irrigable […].

It can be turned into the Green Belt irrigated land, and that land – if we take stock – is around 1 m hectares.” Malawi’s department of irrigation has plans to supply 408,000ha – more than 4% of the country’s land area – with water. About 104,000ha already receive water from existing schemes.

Many Malawians, from consultants to bartenders, agree with Njoloma that tapping into the lake is the quickest way to alleviate poverty. “If we can have irrigation, we can get time to get the crops three times per year,” Chief Chikhawo says.

The GBI is developing the Shire Valley Irrigation Project (SVIP), which will convert 42,500ha of largely seasonal floodplains south of Lake Malawi into perennially irrigated farmland. According to Malawi’s 2015 National Irrigation Master Plan, the SVIP might even increase the amount of electricity available.

The Illovo sugar plant is the country’s largest consumer of electricity, as it pumps water to its nearly 30,000ha of cane fields. With gravity-fed irrigation projects under construction, much of this electricity could stay on the grid.

The greedy sun

However, not all stakeholders see aggressive irrigation as the answer to Malawi’s woes. The Shire River handles all Lake Malawi’s outflow, and three hydropower plants on the river produce more than 97% of the country’s electricity.

A combination of environmental factors and overuse of the lake threatens water levels and, as a result, power supply. Lake Malawi does not have a strong buffer of rivers and streams, and only 17% of its annual water loss comes from outflow with evaporation accounting for the remaining 83%.

Tom Johnson, the founder of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the United States, explains: “This lake is poised to drop dramatically just naturally, due to climate variability alone.”

Southern Africa has experienced a major drought that began in 2015. Electricity was severely rationed when the Shire slowed to a trickle in similar circumstances in 1997. Last December saw the lake at its lowest level since 1997, and 2016 is trending toward even lower levels.

“Any major irrigation programme on top of that would be reducing the amount of water that flows into the lake. [That] would just increase the likelihood of the next drop in lake level below [river] outlet elevation,” Johnson says.

Steven Kayira is the manager of the 124MW Nkula power station, and he says Nkula ran at 60%-65% capacity last year as a result of the river’s low flow. Most irrigation schemes are built close to the lake or river, where they can rely on gravity instead of electric pumps to move water.

Agriculture on riverbanks encourages siltation and the growth of weeds like elephant grass, both of which harm turbines and block cooling systems. “Those who farm alongside the river­banks are also applying fertiliser, and that creates nutrients for the elephant grass to grow,” Kayira says. “This farming along the Shire River promotes erosion of the riverbanks, thereby increasing siltation.”

According to him, cleaning organic detritus blocking Nkula’s intakes costs about $125,000 annually. Nkula was commissioned in 1966. Today ceiling and floor tiles are missing, water drips from constant leaks and a piece of paper with “NOT TO BE OPERATED” scrawled in pen covers dials in the control room.

The US government’s Millennium Challenge Account is providing $350.7m to upgrade Nkula, clear upstream weeds and silt, and improve transmission networks. Communities across Malawi face the same obstacles to development as Chikhawo village, and people are calling for a solution that provides both electricity and irrigation.

Much of Malawi’s population uses firewood and charcoal for cooking and heat, and increased access to electricity could halt this reliance.

Vicious cycle

Malawi loses 2.8% of its forest annually on average, leading to erosion that silts the waterways the government plans to use for irrigation.

“The blackouts have increased demand for charcoal, which in turn is resulting in exacerbating environmental degradation in the Shire River basin. It’s a vicious cycle,” energy ministry spokesman Joseph Kalowekamo explains.

Department of irrigation director Geoffrey Mamba tells The Africa Report that a deteriorating environment slows progress on new irrigation projects: “[Malawi’s rivers] are not as strong as they used to be. There are lots of things we are supposed to do in terms of catchment conservation and protection. If we can’t, then one million hectares [of irrigated land] is far-fetched.”

Even if Malawi can manage its natural resources, large-scale irrigation may strain the country’s fiscal resources. According to GBI director Njoloma, each hectare of irrigation costs about $9,000.

That means the government needs an additional $2.7bn to reach its current goal. The irrigation programmes are more likely to benefit big business than smallholders. “Where we’re going has more to do with the commercialised agriculture, not subsistence,” the irrigation department’s Mamba says.

President Peter Mutharika officially opened a 6,000ha sugar cane estate in August. The roughly $125m project is the product of a public-private partnership spearheaded by the GBI. About 15km from Lake Malawi near the town of Salima, plots on the estate are split among about 250 smallholder farmers, 100 medium-sized operations and one large producer.

Njoloma hopes to attract more investors and open new sites. “If [the Salima project] succeeds, then it unlocks a lot of potential in terms of funding sources,” Njoloma concludes.

From the November 2016 print edition

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