The 400km long Shire River is the single most important watercourse in Malawi, playing a crucial role in the country’s economic development and power production. Mass deforestation and poor farming practices were causing widespread soil erosion, silting up the river and putting at risk the country’s main source of power and water supplies to Blantyre, a city of more than 1M people. The Shire River Basin covers 2.7Mha and every year, in the worst-hit erosion areas, three truckloads of soil per hectare were washed away. As part of the Shire River Basin Management Program (Phase 1), funded by the World Bank, we were hired to support the Government of Malawi’s rehabilitation of four catchment areas totalling 130,000ha.
Most Malawians rely on the soil for their living, as well as for firewood and charcoal for fuel. Alongside civil engineering improvements to rural infrastructure, our team was tasked with supporting local authorities and engaging with communities to encourage people to swap short-term exploitation of natural resources for a more sustainable approach. Based on a finance model that enjoyed success in the upper Aswa River catchment in Uganda, we decided to introduce the Community Environment Conservation Fund to galvanise communities into farmland management, tree planting and other riparian works.
Communities were grouped by mini-catchment area and funds were available to those that had developed a catchment management plan and implemented measures such as sustainable farming and forestry practices, and vegetated ‘buffers’ beside watercourses to catch eroded soil borne by rainwater runoff. Any community member active in the development and delivery of a scheme could borrow from the Community Environment Conservation Fund to purchase seeds and farm equipment, or to pay school and medical fees, for example. Loans were provided with a low interest rate. Repayments replenished the fund, so it continued to grow.
Communities planted bamboo and trees to prevent flooding and retain fertile topsoil, and vegetation along the riverbanks to act as a buffer zone. More than 25,000ha of soil and water conservation and almost 10,000ha of forestry work was completed, and over 4000km of streams and riverbeds rehabilitated.
Soil and water conservation included construction of check-dams and contour marker ridges, ridge realignment and improvements in soil fertility. These measures have reduced soil erosion. As the regenerated forests grow, they will sequester carbon, provide new natural habitat and increase biodiversity. Trees will also provide people with shade and protection from wind.
Small business loans supported economic development and reduced reliance on the land, while the restoration of degraded ecosystems has helped food insecure communities to grow more, with water retained in the trenches and other interventions enabling farmers increase their yield.