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As rich countries shirk responsibility for the climate crisis, families in Malawi are boiling mangoes to survive

Given, a smallholder woman farmer from Zambia stands in her field surrounded by dried maize plants destroyed by prolonged drought

By Chikondi Chabvuta, ActionAid’s regional humanitarian adviser for Southern Africa

Severe hunger is devastating communities across Southern Africa, where persistent drought, back-to-back cyclones and flooding have wreaked havoc on harvests in a region dependent on rain-fed, smallholder agriculture.

The region is experiencing its worst drought in 35 years, affecting 45 million people across Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. On a recent trip to assess need, we found desperate families facing extreme hunger are boiling mangoes to survive as there is so little food available. It is no wonder that malnutrition levels are soaring way above normal levels.

A world away in Madrid, the UN climate conference (COP25) ended having failed to agree concrete measures to support those already embroiled in a climate emergency they did the least the cause.

What people in the Global South are already experiencing as they struggle to survive on one meal a day, watch floods wash away their crops and livestock, rebuild their livelihoods after the second cyclone in so many months, is known at the climate talks as ‘loss and damage’.

It was hoped that this year’s climate conference might finally see rich countries, those most responsible for the climate crisis, agree to create a system to provide finance to support communities to recover from climate disasters. But as the negotiations ended, hopes faded that the immense suffering already being caused by climate change would have any influence over world leaders with the power to end the cycles of debt and poverty caused by extreme weather and disasters in the Global South.

The food crisis in southern Africa has been made worse by cyclone Idai and Kenneth, which destroyed crops right before the harvest season earlier this year. As part of the response to the cyclones, seeds were provided in the hope that crops would be ready for the winter and that communities would be able to rebuild their livelihoods.

But in Mozambique, the replanting was met by a heavy infestation of Fall Army Worm that destroyed the crops. Soaring temperatures then made the soil so dry that nothing could grow. Now, people are losing hope after trying everything to recover from the impacts of the cyclones.

In Malawi, food for work programmes and other social protection projects set up in the aftermath of the storm have now ended. But communities remain is need of support. A new funding mechanism for survivors of climate disasters, under the UN climate change body would support governments, like Malawi’s, to finance such projects.

Families are facing extreme hunger and there are high levels of malnutrition especially in children. In the Nsanje and Phalombe districts, stunting is at 32%, over 10 percentage points above normal levels of 20%, wasting has risen to 9%, way above the average 5%, and those reporting as underweight have shot up by more than three times to nearly 18%. Childcare centres providing porridge saw attendance more than double as parents saw an opportunity to provide an extra meal for their children.

But elsewhere school attendance has dropped. Our partners report that some girls are resorting to early marriages as parents desperately try to reduce the number of mouths to feed.

Women and children are the most impacted by the food crisis, especially in areas also hit by the cyclone. In Malawi, when people left displacement camps to rebuild their homes after the storm, any money that the family set aside would go towards purchasing maize, as shelter was a second priority. “I would rather eat and sleep outside my damaged house than have a house with a roof and no food,” one woman told me. Our partners tell us that as a result, cases of sexual exploitation, violence and abuse are rising.

In Lamego, where ActionAid has supported women to set up a safe space, where they can feel protected, their greatest concern is now ensuring that scarce food supplies are fairly distributed. During one focus group I attended, women said would rather food is distributed at the safe space and handled by women because the processes are more transparent without men involved.

We didn’t visit Zambia during my recent trip, but colleagues have said the situation is very similar. They are seeing the desperate faces of hungry children everywhere. The local fundraising efforts are not proving successful as the crisis is not getting enough attention globally to raise its profile.

Many people I met, felt that the rest of the world is turning its back on the food and climate emergencies affecting so many families across southern Africa, who did the least to cause the crisis.

But while governments have failed, the climate justice movement is growing. In the run up to next year’s climate conference in Glasgow, ordinary citizens, young people, Indigenous Peoples and frontline communities will rise up and demand a good deal for climate survivors. World leaders must listen.