Watershed management policies needed for Malawi’s economic stability and growth

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Flooded village in Malawi Flooded village in Malawi. Photo: Govati Nyirenda

"Oh no, my maize!" Mrs. Nkhonya cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. She pointed at her maize field, now buried under sand and mud from the Kyungu River flood in Karonga this past April. This tragic incident highlights the immediate and severe impact of watershed degradation and climate change on individual livelihoods.

I see Malawi's economy being intricately tied to the health of its watersheds. Through the rapid conversion of land for agriculture and widespread deforestation, Malawians have seen a dramatic loss of forest cover from 47% in 1975 to just over 20% in 2021. As outlined in the World Bank’s 18th Malawi Economic Monitor, healthy watersheds play a critical role in driving economic activities such as agriculture, fishing, and hydroelectric power generation. However, the challenges posed by climate change and a rapidly growing population threaten the sustainability of vital resources.

Our Malawi has a unique opportunity to shape its future by implementing policies that stabilize the economy and set the stage for long-term growth. In line with the Malawi 2063 Vision (MW2063), which focuses on agriculture, commercialization, and urbanization, we also need the following policies if we are to turn a corner towards achieving economic stability and long-term growth.

Firstly, we need a Watershed Restoration Policy. This policy would guide us in investing in watershed restoration projects like reforestation and erosion control management infrastructure, including erosion control measures, and reforestation efforts. It would also align with, and will help us meet, Sustainable Development Goal 15 (SDG15 - Life on Land) which aims to protect, restore, and promote sustainable usage of ecosystems . By restoring our watersheds, we are improving water quality and availability, which is crucial for agriculture and daily life. Healthier watersheds will also mitigate soil erosion, enhancing biodiversity, and ensuring reliable water supplies for our communities. To make this work, we need comprehensive planning that combines scientific research with traditional knowledge, effective coordination among stakeholders, and proper funding through public-private partnerships and international aid.

Next, we should implement a Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Policy. In 2019 Malawi was ranked 161 out of 181 by the ND-Global Adaptation Initiative index which shows the vulnerability and readiness of countries to climate change. According to the World Bank report, the latest weather shocks to hit Malawi were Cyclone Idai in 2019 and Freddy in 2023. Following Cyclone Freddy, agricultural output in 2023 was only marginally larger than in 2022. Rapid inflation (28% in 2023) and foreign exchange shortages throughout the year contributed to a weak business environment, further undermining economic growth. Many Malawians have been feeling the squeeze from the scarcity of available jobs and pressures on real wages. In 2023, approximately 71.7% of the population was estimated to be living below the international poverty line. This policy could help us build resilience against these risks by promoting climate-smart agricultural practices, renewable energy sources, and improved water management. With climate-smart agriculture, our farmers can increase productivity and withstand climate shocks, reducing economic losses. Embracing renewable energy will cut greenhouse gas emissions, and better water management will ensure stable supplies for everyone. Key to this policy are thorough climate risk assessments, integrating innovative technologies, and building capacity among farmers and communities.



To ensure long-term sustainability, a Sustainable Agriculture Policy is essential. This policy should encourage practices like crop diversification, agroforestry, and using organic fertilizers to enhance soil fertility. Sustainable agriculture not only improves soil health and yields but also boosts food security and farmer incomes. It supports biodiversity by reducing reliance on chemicals and promotes healthier ecosystems. We can drive this change by offering incentives for sustainable practices, strengthening agricultural research and extension services, and developing markets for sustainably produced goods.

Finally, we need an Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) Policy. Water is central to our agriculture, industry, and daily life, so we must manage it wisely. This policy should promote integrated approaches that consider the interconnectedness of water, land, and ecosystems. By coordinating across sectors, we can use our water resources efficiently, balance competing demands, and minimize conflicts. Creating platforms for cross-sector collaboration, using data and technology for informed decisions, and developing strong regulatory frameworks will ensure we protect and manage our water resources sustainably.

By implementing these constructive policies, we can achieve sustainable watershed management, ensuring the continued provision of ecosystem services vital for economic activities and human well-being, pursuing economic stabilization and long-term development goals. Moreover, they would contribute to achieving broader development objectives such as poverty reduction, food security, and climate resilience, positioning our Malawi on a path toward sustainable and equitable growth, thereby achieving the Malawi Vision 2063.

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