Climate impacts in Karonga District
The urban center of Karonga in Malawi is located in Northern Malawi on the low-lying North Rukuru River floodplain, and by the shore of Lake Malawi. Karonga often experiences extreme weather events such as droughts. Due to this, communities face daily challenges including unsafe drinking water, poor-quality sanitation, and associated health risks. The nature and scale of the risks are not well understood due to a lack of community climate education. This lack of education makes it harder for people to adequately address the impacts of extreme weather events. The severity of climate impacts vary according to differences in levels of income, planning and housing status, access to water, sanitation, and the type of energy used by households.
Rebuilding after a flood
Mbwefu Village is one of the areas most affected by floods in Karonga District. Katie Chisambi, a 45-year-old widow and stay-at-home mum of five based in the village, depends on piece work (ganyu) to earn a living and pay school fees for her son in secondary school.
In January 2023, floods and strong winds destroyed her home. She and her children were forced to vacate the premises and look for safety elsewhere. They eventually found shelter at a school nearby. However, with the entire community rushing there for shelter, there was not enough space and resources for everyone. The lack of water supply and proper sanitation led to an increase in cholera cases. Katie and her family were forced to leave the school and find shelter along the road in an open space with nowhere else to go. Katie and her sister explained that every year, more than 500 households are displaced and women and children are most impacted, and have the least access to resources. This often leads to increased sexual exploitation cases at camping sites as well as an increase in cholera and malnutrition. Additionally, many children are unable to go to school as the school premises are used as makeshift campsites for displaced people.
“When we were young, the rainy season was the happiest season. Everyone was anticipating to grow crops, but these days it is scary. Every time the rainy season is here, we are not sure if we will survive. If our houses will be intact. And if our children will be out of school for two to three months. And yet, they are expected to cover the same syllabus and write the same national exams like the rest of the schools in the country. For women and girls, it is very dangerous because you have no idea if you will be able to find help and access to health services,” said Katie Chisambi.
Women-led initiative empowers the community and addresses climate impacts
Patricia Chibaka, a 22-year-old Karonga resident, is an outstanding example of an individual who has decided to empower women and girls who are at the forefront of climate action. She established a community club for women and girls with help from Green Girls Platform, a female-led organisation established to address challenges that women and girls face due to climate-induced impacts. Patricia’s community club works to train and educate women on climate change and potential measures to address it. Members of the club learn about community-based early warning systems, and have a safe space to share experiences and knowledge on how to cope with the adverse impacts of loss and damage. Through this community club, Patricia has been able to train 35 young women and girls on climate change, leadership, tree nursery establishment, and management as well as briquette making as an alternative energy source.
The initiative has empowered women like Katie Chisambi and provided a platform and space to share their experiences from the ongoing climate impacts they are facing. They have also planted 10,000 tree seedlings in more than seven schools in their community as well as sell the tree seedlings to help them earn a living. They are also using their skills in briquette making, to help produce their briquettes to not only use them at home but also sell and earn a living.
“When I was starting this initiative, I was not sure if it was going to be a success or if women were going to be willing and cooperative because I knew that women’s and girls’ participation might be the change we want to see in our communities. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change but do not have a platform to be actively engaged in climate action,” said Patricia Chibaka. “Moreover, our culture limits women’s and girls’ participation in leadership or decision-making spaces, which somehow portrays that women and girls are not willing to participate. We have more women like Katie in our club who has not given up despite the challenges. The earnings from selling tree seedlings and briquettes might not be much but we are making progress after two years since we started our work. We want to see women engaged in more green entrepreneurship activities and be able to sustain their families and be at the forefront of climate action. We have received support and mentorship from the Green Girls Platform and we hope that we will be able to achieve more this year,” she continued.
The way forward
Recognizing the work that women and girls are doing is essential to deal with loss and damage, especially for developing countries that are highly affected. Women and girls are key change makers and innovators to address loss and damage.
Looking at the work that Patricia is doing in Karonga, women and girls have significant potential to bring about the change required to address climate change in their community. However, they must be given support and resources so they can be empowered to participate in decision-making processes as well as local governance structures. This shows how local ownership of adaptation efforts is closely interconnected. The commendable job that Patricia is doing needs upscaling to make it sustainable, which requires funding to reach the local communities.
About the Interviewees
Katie Chisambi is a 45-year-old single mother of five based in Mbwefu village in Karonga. She is part of the Green Girls Platform Karonga Chapter. Patricia Chibaka is a young woman based in Karonga. She is the leader of the Green Girls Platform Karonga Chapter and works with girls and women on projects that help to empower them to participate in climate action. She has trained 35 women and girls in her community on climate change, loss and damage, leadership, tree nursery establishment, management and briquette making.
About the interviewer
Brenda Mwale is a climate change advocate and current Chief Operations Officer at Green Girls Platform. Green Girls Platform is a female-led organisation working to address challenges that women and girls are facing due to climate impacts. Through mentorship, capacity building, advocacy, and storytelling, Brenda along with the organisation aims to ensure women and girls can provide for themselves and end the cycle of poverty. She is also a climate change junior negotiator for Malawi, her focus has been on Loss and Damage since COP26. She also has experience in community outreach and mobilisation since much of her work focuses on working with grass-root communities.