Towards supporting cohesive decision making across water, energy and food through understanding challenges in Malawi

  • Fortune Gomo

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Planet Earth is facing unprecedented global environmental pressures, with increasing population, and climate change posing risks to the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life. In 2011, the World Economic Forum identified water, energy and food (WEF) security as a global risk, and the WEF nexus concept was first recognised and described in time for the Bonn conference in Germany the same year. The increasing pressures on our planet have resulted in resource shortages, leading to WEF insecurity, hampering economic development, social and geopolitical tensions and irreparable environmental damage. In addition, there is need to improve the livelihoods of the ‘bottom billion’ who have no access to clean water, electricity and are undernourished, of which a significant proportion are in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Climate change and the WEF nexus are strongly connected in sub-Saharan Africa, and the climate crisis has led to devastating cyclones, droughts and floods. In the Zambezi river basin, this is particularly felt as the basin relies on water resources for agriculture and for hydropower production. More than 75% of the population in the region are employed in agriculture, with a significant proportion of smallholder farmers; and 20% of the electricity generated in the basin coming from hydropower. In Malawi, one of the Zambezi basin riparian countries, 98% of electricity comes from hydropower, and more than 80% of their population is employed in the agriculture sector.

    The water-energy-food nexus approach recognises the crucial interdependence of WEF. But there is a lack of integrative approaches and tools for policy makers, businesses and land managers that enable better decision making across a range of scales. Moreover, Malawi faces a set of unique challenges limiting better integrative decision making, including (i) the lack of trained experts in government roles (ii) lack of data and monitoring, a key tenant to adaptive management and understanding problematic situations; and (iii) the lack of process and political will and/or political interference.

    This study contributes to the understanding of the intersectoral and cross-scale challenges and interactions of the WEF sectors in the Zambezi river basin, particularly, in Malawi. Understanding the challenges at various levels of governance and geographical scales and how they interact, can enable policy makers and decision makers at these levels and scales to integrate not only horizontally across sectors, but also vertically across scales, locally and regionally.

    The study took a multi-level approach, starting with spatial analysis of the Zambezi river basin to identify hotspots of land cover change (1992-2015). This was followed by semi-structured interviews and small group empirical data collection at the national and farmer levels in Malawi. Finally, a water footprint analysis of the sustainability of a national policy of irrigation expansion. This approach was taken because it allowed consideration of bio-physical and socio-economic aspects of the WEF nexus issues at key levels of decision making, i.e. national policy, down to individual farmers.

    The land cover change analysis, across the Zambezi basin, showed that extensive changes were happening with significant shifts from tree cover to cropland, with a 4.6% basin wide loss in tree cover and a 16% basin wide gain in cropland during the study period. The changes were found to be occurring mainly in the eastern (Malawi and Mozambique) and southern (Zimbabwe and southern Zambia) parts of the basin. Malawi lost 33 000ha of forest cover every year between 1990 and 2000 and had the fastest rate of forest loss at 2.6%/year. Malawi experienced increased urbanisation from 131km2 in 1992 to 341km2 in 2015, and an increase in cropland from 1992 to 2015.

    Malawi was selected for further study because of the extensive land cover changes found, changes in socio-economic drivers as well as the importance of land and water resources for its economy. Malawi has a low ranking in several socio-economic indicators compared to the other Zambezi basin countries. It has the lowest annual GDP of about US$7 billion, and the lowest GDP/capita/year at about US$338. The country also has the highest population density in the Zambezi, of 129 people/km2 and the fastest growing population, growing at a rate of 3%/year. The geography of Malawi also factored into making the decision to study further, with more than 90% of its territory draining into the Zambezi basin, the hydrological (surface water) and national boundaries almost fit, presenting less complications in defining physical boundaries for this study.

    National level policy stakeholder engagement highlighted the key WEF challenges at a national level. These were analysed using the DPSIR (drivers-pressures-states-impacts-response) framework to understand the key intersectoral challenges and how they interacted. From these conversations with Government officials a series of challenges emerged including deforestation, climate change and variability, and a lack of financial and institutional capacity.

    Catchment level water footprint analysis was carried out to assess the implications of the National Irrigation Policy (2015) for Malawi’s water resources, which aims to increase area under irrigation from 104 000ha in 2015 to 220 000ha in 2035. The water footprint analysis was carried out based on a new dataset of crop distribution maps of Malawi, and water supply and demand based on model results from the hydrological model CWatM (Community Water Model). In general, water demand for agriculture will increase due to expansion of land area under irrigation to 220 000 hectares in 2035. The total annual agricultural water footprint for the 10 catchments in this study more than doubled, with the blue water footprint (productive irrigation water requirement) increasing from 1 213Mm3 in 2010 to 3062Mm3 in the irrigation expansion scenario SC-2010+, where only the irrigation area was changed and all climate data held constant, and green water footprint (soil moisture effectively used by crops) increasing from 1 107Mm3 in 2010 to 2 761Mm3 in the same scenario. Future water availability in Malawi’s catchments was found to be uncertain due to climate uncertainties, with the outcomes of the four general circulation models (GCMs) predicting varying levels of water availability for 2035 and 2050. There is variability in the annual water footprint and net water availability between catchments of Malawi, with some catchments showing that they will be overdrawn for irrigation if the 2035 irrigation expansion policy is achieved.

    Local level stakeholder engagement involved smallholder farmers from Karonga, Salima and Machinga. This was aimed at understanding the smallholder farmer perspectives, and the local level WEF challenges in Malawi. Key local level challenges identified were overcrowding and over population, lack of access to land, and lack of adequate irrigation resources, as well as non-irrigation agricultural inputs.
    Date of Award2020
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorJohn Rowan (Supervisor), Kit Macleod (Supervisor), Jagadeesh Yeluripati (Supervisor) & Kairsty Topp (Supervisor)


    • water-energy-food nexus
    • Water resource management
    • Malawi
    • decision making
    • Zambezi basin

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