The sunny smiles travellers encounter in 'the warm heart of Africa' belie a country grappling with the disasters of drought, flooding and food shortages. These environmental catastrophes are set against a background of political corruption, unsustainable population growth and deforestation, and one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS infection rates. There is some good news in the conservation sector, with animal translocations and improvements to Malawi's major parks and reserves.

Drought, Floods & Food Crisis

In 2016, Malawi entered its second year at the forefront of the worst drought to hit Southern Africa in three decades, triggered partly by El Niño. This exacerbated the problems of one of the world's poorest countries, in which around 50% of the population was already malnourished. As Malawi faced its most severe food crisis in a decade and aid agencies distributed supplies around the country, with locals walking miles to collect a 50kg sack of grain, President Peter Mutharika declared a state of national disaster.

Mutharika, who succeeded Joyce Banda in 2014, appealed for 1.2 million tonnes of maize, saying the country's maize harvest was down by 12%. He had previously declared a state of national disaster in January 2015, after Malawi’s worst floods in over a decade – another symptom of the region’s volatile, drought-prone weather – damaged 640 sq km of crops and affected over a million people. In the Lower Shire Valley around Majete Wildlife Reserve, one of the worst-affected areas, communities resorted to desperate measures such as subsisting on broth made of unripe watermelons. By the end of 2016, as the government carried out Malawi’s biggest ever food relief operation, it was estimated that around 40% of the population urgently needed help.

Crisis Solutions & the Future

International aid agencies have increased their support to Malawi, but environmental catastrophes are devastating to such a rural nation, where 80% of the population works in farming and agriculture comprises a third of the economy. All aspects of life are affected, with almost daily power cuts as the 2016 dry season wore on – the cuts were blamed on low water levels in the 99%-hydroelectric country. Despite the estimated US$550 million of government funds lost to corruption in the last decade, the government is working on projects such as diverting water from the Shire River to irrigate 1000 sq km of farmland – a collaboration with the World Bank.

However, as the country welcomes the end-of-year rains yet fears more flooding, questions remain about what lies beyond the current crisis. Over 46% of this rapidly growing and urbanising population is aged under 14, and around half of children under five are stunted and suffer from subclinical vitamin A deficiency, with huge implications for their personal development and the country’s socioeconomic prospects.

Joyce Banda & Cashgate

After Bingu wa Mutharika’s despotic eight-year presidency, there were high hopes for Africa’s second female leader, Joyce Banda, who was expected to follow a progressive path of political and economic reform. As vice president, despite having been expelled from the ruling DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), she inherited the presidency when the 78-year-old Mutharika died in office. She began by selling his US$15 million presidential jet and securing a US$150 million IMF donation, but this early promise faded. Her two-year term will mostly be remembered for the 'cashgate' scandal, in which up to US$100 million was looted from government coffers, prompting international loan freezes and a budget deficit, both exceeding US$150 million. She went into self-imposed exile after her electoral defeat in 2014, having already survived an assassination attempt (possibly instigated by her predecessor), but she reportedly intends to run in the 2019 elections.

Peter Mutharika

President Mutharika heads the DPP, established by his late brother and former president Bingu. He has stepped up to respond to Malawi’s droughts, flooding and food crisis, but the 76-year-old has been dogged by rumours of ill health. He entered an October 2016 press conference confidently waving both hands, following an unexplained month-long stay and possible convalescence in the US, but he faces daunting challenges including Malawi’s 10% HIV/AIDS infection rate, rampant deforestation, the world’s second-fastest-growing population and barbaric traditional practices such as persecution and murder of people with albinism.

Conservation Success

Despite ongoing poaching, there is positive news in Malawi’s conservation sector, mostly coming from African Parks, which manages the wildlife-packed trio of Majete Wildlife Reserve, Liwonde National Park and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Having translocated four lions from South Africa to Majete in 2012, making the southern reserve Malawi’s only Big Five park, African Parks undertook a historic translocation of 261 elephants, along with several other species, from Liwonde to Nkhotakota in 2016. This will be followed by another 250 elephants from Majete in 2017, while Liwonde’s rhino sanctuary continues to conserve endangered black rhinos.