Widespread soil erosion, created by mass deforestation and poor farming practices throughout the basin, is silting up hydropower stations and threatening to cause long-term damage to water supplies, food security and the region’s micro-climate.
Reversing the decline is in the hands of smallholder farmers and their communities but finding the right incentive to encourage the required change takes a novel approach.
- 96% of Malawi’s power comes from hydro, with 98% of all hydro generated on the Shire
- 90% of water for the city of Blantyre (> 1M inhabitants) is from the Shire
- Malawi has a population of 18 million, and this is expected to double by 2040. The vast majority of Malawians rely on the soil for their living, as well as firewood and charcoal for fuel
- The Shire River Basin covers 2.7M hectares
- Every year, in the worst-hit erosion areas, three truckloads of soil per hectare are washed away
As part of the Government of Malawi’s Shire River Basin Management Program (Phase 1), funded by the World Bank, we were hired to facilitate rehabilitation of four catchment areas totalling 130,000ha. Alongside civil engineering improvements to market centres, roads and bridges, our team was tasked with community engagement to encourage change from short-term exploitation of natural resources - as a means of making a living - towards a more sustainable approach. However, due to a combination of unexpected climatic events and an engrained ‘dependency culture’, our original attempt to change hearts and minds by promoting the intrinsic value of the work we wanted communities to do, soon proved unrealistic.
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.
Each group of communities involved in the project, as defined by the mini-catchment area they live in, has access to a revolving fund once they have agreed to develop and then implement a catchment management plan. Any member of that community, as long as they are active in the development and delivery of their management plan, can borrow money with a small rate of interest and over an agreed period for any purpose.
Examples of reasons why people borrow include paying school or medical fees, making small investments or just for everyday purchases when funds are short. The first payment to communities was for development of the plan, the second and third for effective delivery of the plan, determined by meeting set targets, and also for sound financial management of the money already given.
In total these community groups received $1,500 that stayed with that community and, if continually managed well, will grow in perpetuity.
Value and benefits
Although the size of the project covers a fraction of the basin, the progress in terms of community action, reforestation and re-vegetation provides a beacon for others to follow in the region. With over 20,000 ha of soil and water conservation, and nearly 10,000 ha of forestry work done, the project has set a marker for future action. Moreover, in light of the United Nation’s recent resolution to prioritise reforestation as a means of converting several of the Sustainable Development Goals, this pragmatic approach to funding can provide a blueprint for similar hotspots in Africa and elsewhere in the world.